Ever had one of those days?

You know… the type of day where your phone rings constantly, you can’t seem to stop the flood of emails, and it feels like you just aren’t able to get anything done. You head home to find that your house — which was clean this morning — is now a complete mess. You discover there’s no milk left in the refrigerator and walk in to see that your living room walls have been repainted by young, aspiring artists.

While there are moments we can laugh at some of these situation, most of the time we find the negative continuing to turn over and over in our thoughts and minds. Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, has shared, “The negatives screams at you, but the positive only whispers.”  Why is it so difficult for us to maintain a positive outlook?

“The negative screams at you, but the positive only whispers”
— Barbara Fredrickson

Why is it so difficult for us to maintain a positive outlook?

To answer that question, it’s important to remember some basic facts about the brain. Our brains are hardwired to remember the negative. It’s a safety mechanism. Our amygdalae (tiny almond-shaped structures within our brain) play a key role in the way we respond emotionally to fearful events – both to traumatic events we may have experienced at some point in time and to other events we are taught to be fearful about. These memories are easily triggered (especially when we are tired and fatigued) and a strong emotional response results. If you think of these memories as a painting, the colors of these memories remain deep and vivid over time due to the influence of the amygdala.

Science is unlocking patterns in our behavior. What we are learning is that once our brains view a situation from a negative place, we tend to keep that negative focus. This is true even if we initially viewed the situation as being positive. But we don’t have to remain stuck in a negative loop. Alison Ledgerwood, a professor at the University of California – Davis, describes this phenomena in this short TED Talk —>  (look at the video to your right)

Dr. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist who teaches at Duke University, has found that the negative emotions we experienced to a particular situation can cause us to make future decisions out of that same emotional place – “even when our reaction and the current situation are mismatched. We are wired to react and act out habits and emotional patterns that may or may not be useful, but that fit like a comfortable pair of shoes” (Napolitano & Pesut, 2015, p. 103). The good news in all of this science is that our reactions do not have to stay that way.

“A positive attitude causes a chain reaction of positive thoughts, events & outcomes. It is a catalyst and it sparks extraordinary results.”
— Wade Boggs

be mindful

Learning to be mindful of our present moment and our triggers can allow us to purposefully pay attention and become more aware of our surroundings, our emotions, our thoughts, and how our body feels

As we practice mindfulness, we can choose to focus and pay close attention to that “one thing” without judgment.  This enables us not to dwell or get stuck in repetitive negative thoughts and feelings about a situation.  It can also help us to return to a place of calm more quickly. By being mindful, we are training ourselves to be more in control of our emotions. We are also able to avoid becoming lost in regrets from the past, present triggers we are facing, or worries about the future.

Napolitano and Pesut (2015) also recommended other suggestions to help us turn a negative into a positive:

  • Create a “pause” in our thinking when we encounter a trigger. Remember to breathe. It can keep us from responding emotionally.
  • Have a sense of humor when recognizing or acknowledging a mistake.
  • Be willing to comfort, listen, and express sadness. It can help others in their own healing.
  • Show gratitude.
  • Express hope – in ourselves and in others.
  • Demonstrate compassion for others.
  • Draw strength from supportive relationships.

 

Resources:

Napolitano, E. A., & Pesut, D. J. (2015). Bounce forward: The extraordinary resilience of nurse leadership. Silver Spring, MD: American Nurses Association.

Phelps, E. A. (2004). Human emotion and memory: interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex. Current opinion in neurobiology, 14, 198 – 202. Doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2004.03.015