Work Around the Negativity Bias to Ease Anxiety
Thursday, June 15 2017 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
The human brain has a negativity bias, and it is partially because of this negatively skewed view of our world that we experience anxiety. Studies have shown that the brain notices the negative more quickly and more frequently than it notices the positive.1 Not only that, it reacts much more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive. When our brain automatically, on its own, gravitates toward the negative and focuses its attention there, we feel stressed and anxious. Are we doomed to anxiety because of the negativity bias?
How the Negativity Bias Causes Anxiety
The brain notices anything negative around us, perceives a threat, and pounces. The positive around us often drifts around under our radar, either unnoticed or dismissed with a bored shrug (Help Your Brain Change and Heal: Sensitize Your Amygdala). This biased way of seeing our world certainly doesn’t seem to create joy and life satisfaction, so why does our brain automatically go to the negative? Does it want to feel stressed and anxious?
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has linked negativity bias to our evolution.2 For survival, it was necessary to be on alert for danger. Thus, the brain was constantly scanning for, and reacting to, threats. And we continue to face threats today, so a brain that is ready to act is a nice thing to have.
A brain with a negativity bias is nice to have, but only to a point. When we, without fully realizing it, are watching for threats and looking for problems, we become increasingly anxious. Anxiety created by the negativity bias involves:
- A tendency to overthink things
- A penchant to evaluate people and situations as good or bad, and because we have a negativity bias, we find a lot of “bad”
- Seeing people and interactions through a discolored, pessimistic lens, making us feel scrutinized, judged, and not good enough
- Heightened worries, fears, and “what-ifs”
- Prolonged physical symptoms of anxiety such as digestive troubles or headaches
Our negativity bias does cause anxiety by making us alert to problems. We frequently don’t even realize we’re doing it, as the brain’s constant scans run subconsciously in the background, under our conscious awareness. This can result in a vague anxiety that seems impossible to eliminate.
Ways to Change Your Negativity Bias and Lower Anxiety
The anxiety caused by our brain’s negativity bias can be strong and stubborn. Once we become aware of our tendency to find negativity or interpret people in situations negatively, it becomes much easier to reduce the anxiety associated with it.
Some pointers to help you change your negativity bias and lower your anxiety are:
- Notice what you notice—keep track of what you’re paying attention to, what is negative.
- Listen to your thoughts, especially when you’re experiencing anxiety, to see what negative messages you’re being blasted with.
- Problem-solve when things are truly negative by developing an action plan to deal with it (action prevails over anxiety).
- Intentionally take note of what’s right in order train your brain to expand its worldview.
- keep a gratitude journal to teach your brain that there are good things to pay attention to and that not everything is dangerous.
This ingrained negativity bias causes us significant anxiety. Just because the brain is naturally slanted toward the negative doesn’t mean we have to let it wallow and fret. It’s possible to overcome this anxiety-causing negativity bias by taking small steps every single day to train the brain to find and respond to the positive, thus diminishing anxiety.
- Our Brain's Negative Bias: Why our brains are more highly attuned to negative news. Psychology Today, June 2016.
- Overcome Your Negativity Bias. Dealbook NYTimes, June 2013.