When the brain is subjected to a heavy dose of sadness, anxiety, loneliness or depression, our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health is impaired. Trauma takes a toll on our ability to function, even simple tasks such as brushing our teeth or getting dressed can feel overwhelming.
Given the rise of negativity in our world today, it’s easy to feel drawn into that cave of darkness. But prolonged bouts of negative thoughts and emotions can absolutely threaten our overall health. Recent studies have even shown how a broken heart can contribute to actual heart disease and even cancer.
Understanding the Brain’s Negativity Bias
After many years of research and interviews, I had amassed a stockpile of information on the human brain, including learning about the brain’s “negativity bias.” This refers to the brain’s predilection [a preference or bias in favor of something] for retaining and recycling negative experiences over positive ones. Once we are caught up in negative thoughts and images, they are self-perpetuating to an alarming degree because of negativity predilection.
Research has shown that out of the 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts we have per day, 80 percent are negative. Once I learned this information, I understood why painful memories from my childhood could be retrieved with photographic detail, whereas happy times were more generic memories. Even minor issues such as critical remarks tend to stick with us.
The Brilliant Benefits of an Optimistic Mindset
Many people believe that they are stuck with their thoughts. That old familiar expression, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, has been disproven by science. Through neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, we know that the brain can change at any age or stage of life.
When the brain consciously engages in new ways of thinking, it forms new neural pathways and connections. Even after traumatic events, the brain has the capacity to generate new neurons. Neuroplasticity is proof that the brain thrives on absorbing new information. Another remarkable fact is that our brains have the ability to delete neural pathways that are no longer useful through a process called synaptic pruning. With time and repetition, the brain can release toxic thoughts and develop new ways of thinking and feeling.
The Hazards of a Negative Mindset
Abundant research correlates a negative frame of mind with harmful psychological and physiological symptoms. A negative mindset can actually change the physical structure of your brain. The nervous system responds through inflammation and oxygen restriction. The hippocampus, or memory part of our brain, releases cortisol, which can inhibit the growth of new neurons and, thereby, shrink the brain. Other parts of the brain are also impacted, leading to lack of focus and concentration, loss of energy, reduced productivity, memory loss, disinterest, diminished sexual drive, irritability, poor sleep patterns, loss of appetite, lethargy and confusion.
Physical symptoms also accompany a negative or pessimistic mindset: headaches, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, chronic pain, joint tenderness, stomach aches, indigestion, nausea, cramping, chronic fatigue, problems with the digestive system, weight gain and osteoporosis.
These symptoms are far too serious to not treat medically. How many doctors, however, understand enough about the mind-body connection to prescribe intensive, even radical, optimistic practices to replace habitually negative thoughts?
Retrain Your Brain to Think Optimistically
You make thousands of decisions every day. Why not shift your attitude by retraining your brain? The wonderful mental, educational, physical and spiritual benefits of a cheery attitude may inspire you to give optimism a try!
Optimists approach each day with fervor, even if they are aware of potential roadblocks. A few of the wonderful attributes include the following:
Psychological, Emotional and Spiritual Benefits
- Heightened cognitive functioning
- Innovative/creative thoughts
- Increased focus and productivity
- Ability to manage stress
- Clarity of thought
- Heightened problem-solving capacity/solutions-oriented
- Higher levels of energy
- Openness to experiences
- Desire to self-actualize
- Tenacity and persistence
- Ability to flip the script from negative to positive
- Healthy lifestyle choices, including nutrition and exercise
- Boosted immune system
- Enhanced ability to heal from illness and surgery
- Improved oxygen flow
- Lowered cortisol secretion
- Long-term sustenance and longevity
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced risk of hypertension
- Reduced cardiovascular disease
- Improved cholesterol
- Lower risk of dementia/Alzheimer’s
These physiological health benefits are ones that have been studied through research. Every day there is new and exciting information on how the brain changes with intentional, focused optimistic thinking.
Unless you know what you are thinking, how can you change? Pay attention to what you are thinking and how it is affecting you, without forcing the thoughts away.
Make a habit to “take your temperature” throughout the day to adjust your thinking. Changing your brain is a conscious and conscientious process. In the beginning, it might feel difficult; however, with time and repetition, your brain will develop new neural pathways. Just as you learned to brush your teeth and tie your shoes, your positive thoughts will, with time, become second nature.
Be Mindful of Negative Triggers
A trigger is a stimulus that evokes a particular thought or emotion from the past. A trigger can derail the best of intentions. This can be a specific word, song, location, person, season, or any cue in the environment that induces a specific feeling within you. As you gain familiarity with the issues that cause you distress, you will be able to adjust them.
Do the Opposite
There are instances when it is in our best interest to simply stop thinking and behaving in a manner that causes distress. Stop, pause, take a deep breath, and eliminate those negative thoughts as soon as they appear.
Challenge yourself to spring into an optimistic mindset. The extraordinary life force will enable you to find joy in your life and also afford you the numerous health benefits along the way.
When you reflect upon all of the meaningful benefits of an optimistic mindset, I think you will agree that it is well worth investing the time to retrain your brain.
Thrive, Anne Boudreau, vol. 27, 53, 54.
“Nothing tends more to promote health of body and of soul than does a spirit of gratitude and praise. It is a positive duty to resist melancholy, discontented thoughts and feelings—as much a duty as it is to pray.” The Ministry of Healing, 251.
“Let your thoughts be directed to the evidences of the great love of God for you.” Ibid., 286.
“Bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,” “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute … dwell on these things” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NKJV; Philippians 4:8 NASB).