We have evolved with an amazing brain to make decisions and respond quickly to threats to our safety. Adapting to make a quick decision when faced with frightening events helped us to stay alive.
When we worry or have negative thoughts, we trick our brains into thinking that there is an immediate threat that we have to take care of. As a result, our fight or flight response kicks in to deal with the stress.
Our brains are pre-wired to respond to negative events, words and behavior more quickly than we do to the opposite. When we think positively, our brain assumes that everything is under control and no action is needed.
How Negative Thinking Affects Your Brain
A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology studied the effects of worrying on performing a task. Subjects were required to sort things into two categories. People who reported that they worry 50% of the time or more showed a significant disruption in their ability to sort objects as the difficulty of the sorting task increased.
In a follow up study by these researchers they were able to show that demonstrated that the disruption was a result of increased levels of negative thoughts. When the brain is faced with complex tasks, negative thinking hurts your ability to process information and think clearly.
If the researchers are correct, thinking negatively about your problems not only doesn’t help solve anything, it actually makes it harder for you to think of a helpful solution. You can read more about how thinking positively affects your brain health here.
Amygdala and Memory
If you have a tendency to over-react to stress, it could be due to changes in your brain brought on by negative thinking. Negative experiences are stored in the brain by the amygdala. The amygdala is also responsible for the brain’s fight or flight response. The prefrontal cortex regulates our response to stressors.
Someone who is faced with a stressful situation like being in a traffic jam normally assesses the level of threat to their safety and concludes that the threat is less than the annoyance factor and talks themselves through relaxing until it is over.
In contrast, someone who has been previously exposed to stress that was life-threatening and is suffering from PTSD might see the traffic jam as a threat to their safety and respond as if they are under attack. They lack the ability to distinguish between the true threat and the perceived stress and over-react.
Thalamus Perceives Stress
The thalamus is responsible to sending sensory and motor signals to the rest of the body but it does not understand that negative thoughts aren’t the same as real danger. When you think negative thoughts, the thalamus assumes that it needs to prepare the body to flee. As a result, our bodies experience real stress symptoms of rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure, and a state of heightened arousal.
Imagine just sitting quietly and suddenly having the physical symptoms of fear. You can sense your heart rate increase, your breathing increases, you perspire, and your blood pressure goes up. You start looking for the cause of the symptoms, but when there is no rational explanation for the fear response it is the thalamus causing you to have a panic attack.
Negative thoughts affect our brain by triggering this same stress response. Chronic stress affects the body physically and can have negative effects on our health and well-being.
Cortisol and Stress
Stress from negative thinking creates changes in the brain that may affect your likelihood of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and mood disorders.
People who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been shown to have abnormalities in their brains. The amount of grey matter versus white matter. The difference is that grey matter is where the information is processed by neurons whereas white matter is a fibrous network that connects the neurons. Chronic stress produces more white matter connections but fewer neurons.
The balance of grey matter and white matter in the brain is important for the timing of communication in the brain. It is believed that the disruption in connections affects both your mood and your memories of the associations with that mood.
The problem is that our brains are good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good experiences. According to Dr. Rick Hanson, creator of The Taking in The Good Course, a brain training program to use your mind to improve your happiness, says that people who completed a program of training themselves to replace negative thoughts with positive ones “experienced significantly less anxiety and depression, and significantly greater self-control, savoring, compassion, love, contentment, joy, gratitude, self-esteem, self-compassion, satisfaction with life, and overall happiness.”
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Improving our brains by eliminating negative thinking is possible. Replacing negative thinking with positive thinking is like training your brain just like you would a dog. You give a dog a reward for good behavior and your brain is similar in that positive thoughts create pleasure in the brain, which is a reward. Once we feel pleasure, we want more of it, so give your brain positive thoughts and keep it on a steady diet of self-rewarding pleasure.