Why do we almost automatically default to negative and fearful thinking
and not so much to positive thinking?
There you are, hearing yourself taking a deep breath and sigh… Thinking; “why?” “Why me, why now?”
If lucky we have someone to rant to but often times, even if we do, the answers they give us, no matter how well meant, are not coming anywhere near to what we need to feel to hear.
We often times, unfortunately, cannot control every aspect of our lives. Stressful events like wars, pandemics, losses like a divorce, a job or a loved one, as also sickness are often times out of our control. Some of us are even confronted with a series of losses.
So no, we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it, how we want to deal with it.
We have all seen that happiness has nothing to do with where or how you grow up. There are people with nothing who still genuinely manage to smile and are even capable of sharing the little they have generously with those who they feel need it more than them.
We also see those that in our eyes have everything but whom are greedy and who seem unable to thoroughly enjoy and value what they have and often lack empathy.
Yet, no matter who you are, what you have or how you grew up, we all have hard and stressful times at some point in our lives and all, no exception, somehow default to feeling down, negative or fearful at times.
Some stay in that stage, in that emotion, longer than others.
This depending on how you are neurologically wired, whether you have a hormonal deficiency, what you’ve been through already, sometimes substance abuse plays a role, but also how aware you are of yourself and your emotional state and how capable you are to change your situation.
No, I won’t go over all the problems there are that many of us will face or encounter during our lives. That’s not where this Q &A is for. We have an amazing service for that at MC Global, called the Confidential Advisory and Coaching service in where we listen, guide, coach and mentor everyone who is looking for some light in their dark days or is just looking for some solutions to the challenges they face.
I, here, very much like to focus on what the reason is why we have that, almost silly, default setting. And how, understanding what is happening inside our head, might help you to respond to certain situations differently. Because when you are able to understand and with that to control your moods a little better, it will result in different behavior. Which often is beneficial for you as well as your environment.
The thing is, we are stuck with the brain we have been given let’s say 100.000 years ago when we were fighting tooth and nail for survival.
We in essence are biologically wired to first respond to what comes in through our senses via our threat detection system and from there it goes on to the part of our brain that puts things into perspective with logic and reason.
Most people when all of a sudden confronted with a stressful event will at that exact moment respond in sort of a bewildering way. That is simply because we are neurologically wired that way. Our brain when confronted with stress has the tendency to hijack certain brain centers
It literally blocks out the parts of the brain that process experiences with perspective and logic. We have to digest what is happening for a moment and after that we respond.
The more frequent something happens, the faster, and often times better, our response will be.
Biology, unfortunately, really makes it hard for us to think critically when in a state of stress and fear and because of that we fall back in an almost illogical state of being. This very much handicaps our strategical and operational skills whom we often need when something stressful happens.
This can be for physical reasons, fighting back or running away when you’re being attacked but also to say something as a response when you are for instance in a critical business meeting or when having a quarrel with someone. We, after an event has happened, all often go over certain situations that we have encountered and then come up with better responses. “I should have said or done that”. These are being stored as “our lessons learned” and we will dig them up from our mind when a similar event happens. As an example, the first time you burn yourself when touching a hot stove, the second time you know not to touch it anymore. Same goes for knowing saying certain things at certain times can better be avoided.
From the moment we’re born we start developing our senses. We learn about different tastes, smells, sounds and how things feel when you touch something or when being touched.
This all goes so naturally that we don’t think much of it while really it is extremely important
because those senses help us for instance feel comfortable and happy, but those exact senses are also there to warn us. Especially these last ones, those warnings, activate our internal threat detection system.
Many of us have all our senses developed but not so much trained and therefore we all respond to stressful events in various ways. Some will stay calm and calculated but most respond in the freeze, fight or flight mode.
The thing is, we are biologically wired to first respond to what comes in through these senses. This then will be filtered in our internal threat detection system before being “sent” to the part of our brain that will approach and analyze it with perspective and logic. Hence why we all respond in different ways.
I am telling all this because it is important to know that your brain will perceive a stressful event as a threat.
A huge part of your brain is devoted to threat detection and constantly on the lookout for threats.
Before all the sensory information goes to the reasoning and logic decision making part of the brain, your vision, taste and sound goes to the center of your threat detection mechanism.
This is a structure of diverse neural formations deep within the brain which are involved in complex activities such as memory, emotion and hormone production. In my classes I will dive deeper into that subject.
The thing is that threat detection itself does not involve the logic and reasoning part of the brain and that's because when you're faced with a sudden stressful situation consciously it would take too long to respond. It simply operates too slow. Your threat detection part regulates your reflexes and can mainly only focus on one event. It quickly detects if is something is a threat or not. The other part of your brain does the part that requires more effort. This is the part that is used, for planning, studying, deep conversations, etc.
When you work in a stressful environment or grew up in it, you are more likely to have this defense mechanism, this threat detection mode on high alert.
As an example of our threat detection in action. When something unexpected is thrown at you, you respond by lifting your arms, jump out of the way or dug before you really realize it. Then later, after the fact, you ask yourself what that was. That is your threat detection in action.
With training certain drills or exercises you’ll create neural pathways between your threat detection mechanism and the part of your brain that combines perspective with logic. This will allow you to better respond to certain situations. Hence why people with medical, safety, security or protection related professions are confronted with stressful exercises during their trainings. This prepares them for real life scenarios so they can keep their focus.
As I mentioned earlier, this threat detection system is part of a system deep within your brain where memories, feelings and hormones are created and stored. Of course, it is way more detailed than this, but I’d like to keep it simple as I want you to understand how thoughts and with that moods and behaviors are connected with each other.
So why is it that our negative and fearful thoughts can be so affected by what we see, hear or experience?
This is because when we experience something we don’t like or understand, something that gives us some sort of stress, it activates our threat detection system.
Due to this stress, adrenaline and cortisol are being released. These are chemicals that tend to flow more easily and freely than the other chemicals our body produces and have the tendency to create negative thoughts which will help you to prepare yourself for a possible fight, it gets you ready. As I said, we have the same brain we had 100.000 years ago.
The thing with these stressful negative thoughts is, that often times we feel down or upset due to our circumstances. There is no one really to fight. The only fight we really have, is often times the fight with ourselves and our raging thoughts.
Due to that cortisol biologically keeps us in that negative and fearful mindset as it has the tendency to travel more easily over these neurologically pathways, it gets into the way of for instance serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. These are chemicals we need to feel good.
It also, when not trained, treated or controlled, keeps us in that dark tunnel, that vicious circle of high alert and negative thoughts. We then are unable to create that helicopter view and to take the emotion out of our circumstances to find or see a solution.
This as you can imagine keeps us on a constant high alert and will eventually physically and mentally wear us out. It depletes the strength and energy out of you and can fatigue you or makes you grumpy.
Especially in the world we live now there is much sensory stimulation and many of us are overwhelmed at times. Sensory overload is not an uncommon word anymore in our society.
As you can probably see now, your mood affects your behavior. But because of that you will consciously or unconsciously also influence other people’s behavior in your environment, positive or negative. The same way you can be affected by other people’s moods or behaviors, they can be affected by yours.
It is also maybe clear to you now that because it’s our, so to say, default setting it is very challenging to get out of that negative or fearful state of being, to flip that switch.
But the good news is, it is not impossible. Because now that you’ve read all this, you hopefully can at least recognize it.
Once you know and recognize something, you are in the position to take action. You can break that circuitry; you can flip that switch. You can learn to take a step back, get that helicopter view and take the emotion out for a minute or you can look for help with that in order to deal with the challenges your face.
When you are stuck in this mindset for a longer period of time, I strongly advise you to talk to someone you trust or find yourself professional help. Let me also be clear about the fact that depression or PTSD truly is something different than being stuck in a negative mindset for just a few days and being fearful due to a real or severe threat of course requires professional help.
One thing that often helps to snap yourself out of a negative thought or when you are high in an emotion is, how silly this sounds, breathing and asking questions.
Breathing lowers cortisol and with that will get you out of that illogical state of being. It gives you some clarity and gives you the opportunity you to think logical and critical again. Breath in for about 5 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds and breath out 6 seconds. Ask yourself, or those around you, various questions, even if they don’t relate to the circumstances. This combination has the ability to get you re-centered and to think more clearly.
It is clear that there’s not nearly enough time to go over this whole process in a Q&A like this. First of all because we each face or deal with our own circumstances and we all experience certain situations differently, so we all have a different context, but understanding what biologically and neurologically happens inside of us might help see things more in perspective.
I trust that this little information has given you some insights on why we sometimes get stuck into our head. As also that we all, no exceptions, go through phases like this in our lives.
Just know that there is a way to have better control over this whole circuitry as there are specific trainings in where you can systematically train what certain threats or stressful events are, how to prioritize them and how to have better control over your thoughts and certain situations.
I am not saying it will be easy, but it will definitely be worth it.
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