It was a bright sunny mid-April morning, and I awoke to the sound of the acorns tripping along the tiles of my roof. I envisioned that the squirrels were taking a short-cut to a safe storage place to hide their feast. As my eyes slowly took in the soft, warm glow of my bedroom, I was feeling excited about the new spring day and ready to hit the ground running. But before my toes touched the ground, my mind took off in another direction, negative thoughts started pouring in and washed away my excitement for the new day.
Taking a deep breath I tried to focus again on this beautiful spring morning with positivity and gratitude. But again my mind was flooded by thoughts of good people stricken down by the Covid-19 disease, healthcare professionals struggling to save them, and families without a their source of income struggling to make ends meet. We’ve all been cast in a dark, surreal drama. No one auditioned for a role, yet we all play a part in this movie.
So here I am on this bright sunny morning with lots of time to watch the news and think negative thoughts, OR figure out how I can change my lived experience in this new reality that I can not change. I started with some research and learned about an effect on the mind called the “negativity bias” which refers to our proclivity to “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information” (Vaish et al., 2008). This bias also know as the ‘negativity effect’, has us humans paying more attention and importance to negative experiences, which have a greater effect on our psychological state than positive or neutral ones. In other words it is easier to be in a negative state of mind then a positive one. And there is no time better than the present. Perhaps.
We don’t need studies to tell us that there is a direct correlation between negative thought and feelings of fear, depression or anxiety. But getting a little more technical, I learned that negativity dials up the sympathetic nervous system, and our production of cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure and ultimately contributing to not only mental health issues but also chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Our brains inclination towards negative thoughts is normal, and as humans even when negative experiences are inconsequential, we tend to focus on unpleasant memories and use stronger words to describe them. Even in the best of times we often dwell on concerns about the future. Almost as if our mind, left to it’s own devices won’t allow us to be content and happy without introducing a thought to counter the bliss. It makes sense that this bias is full throttle during these difficult times, effecting how we think feel and act.
Digging a little deeper, I learned that there is a way to manage the sympathetic nervous system to get out of the darkness into the light, and it’s pretty simple. To counter these feelings we need to dial up our parasympathetic nervous system, often called the rest and digest system because it slows the heart rate and the GI or digestive system.
Psycholgists tell us that there are three things we can do to dial up our parasympathetic system, slow down how we process, and shift ourselves out of the negative space into a more positive place of well-being. They are simply the 3Ms – Movement, Meditation, Mastery
Movement is about staying active. Whether you chose to walk around your home, practice yoga or workout with an online video, exercise is crucial because movement and brain health are interconnected. Specifically the brain releases endorphins, which are the feel good hormones in our bodies. Exercise can reduce anxiety and depression, elevate mood, boost self-esteem and minimize stress while improving cognitive function.
Mindfulness is about focused awareness: Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing your attention on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Studies suggest that mindfulness affects many aspects of our psychological well-being. Meditation is one technique used to enhance the therapeutic effect of mindfulness. Meditation is known to work via its effects on the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the heart rate and respiration. For some it also has a spiritual purpose to promote a calm state of contentment.
Mastery is about feeling accomplished: One definition of mastery is the comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment. Basically it is being productive. There is clinical evidence to show that productivity and depression are linked, and when we are in a negative headspace we tend to be less productive. To assuage the negative effect on our well being psychologists suggest learning something new, singing or playing a new song or tackling a project on our to do list, and seeing it through. In this way we shift our awareness to being productive and train our brain to focus on our accomplishment.
Perhaps when the pandemic is behind us, and it will be, we can return to our good old “normal” lives with a new awareness, new hobbies that we enjoy, and new tools to help us train our brains to be less negative and more positive, and find our bliss.
#positivepsychology #mindfulness #parasympathetic #negativity bias #covid19