When times feel especially tough, it can be hard to maintain a positive mindset. Leaning into negativity is often easier and looking on the bright side just doesn’t cut it. But, according to Dr. Kieran Kennedy, a medical doctor and psychiatry resident, there is a way to train your brain towards positivity.
“It’s commonplace for negative thoughts, ruminations and dark imaginings to speak a little more loudly than self-affirming, positive or optimistic ones at times,” Dr. Kennedy told TheLatch—.
“Studies routinely show that our brains hold onto and repeat negative thoughts more readily than positive ones, and when it comes to picking up signals around danger in the environment, science shows we’re often much more attuned to noticing the clouds rather than the silver linings.”
This is easily demonstrated through feedback. A friend, family member or peer could say 10 nice things about you, but if they include one slightly negative comment within the other positive ones, it’s often the one we latch onto. This comes down to our genetic makeup, says Dr. Kennedy.
“Biologically, and from an evolutionary sense, it makes sense that our minds are more attuned to signals for danger and rejection,” he said.
“From a survival perspective, a brain that could pick up these signs, hold them in mind and remember them was more likely to avoid those very same dangers now and in the future.
“We can thus think of this as a bit of a ‘mental habit’ hanging over from our evolutionary past, and while survival in the strict sense of the word is less needed in modern society today, it means we’re still more likely to pick up and think on things that might signal some form of danger, loss or rejection.”
The pressures placed on us by modern life and social media can also interfere with our sense of self-worth, which can feed into negativity.
“We’re reminded daily of what we ‘need to be’ and should be looking like/achieving/doing/saying in comparison to others,” Dr. Kennedy said.
“With smartphones in hand all day and instant comparison via social media, it’s easy for our minds to fall into habits around comparison to others and negative thoughts that come along with that.”
When it comes to changing this behaviour, there are a number of simple steps you can take in order to focus on the positive, rather than the negative.
☆ Acknowledging negativity: “Acknowledging it is always step 101 when it comes to the mind, so practising staying more alert and aware of our thoughts,” said Dr. Kennedy. “If we’re in a space where we’re feeling low, anxious or frustrated — taking a moment to stop, centre in on what we’re thinking and questioning those thoughts is a key step to curbing negative automatic thoughts. It’s often the case that our negative thinking patterns are distorted or unrealistic beliefs — so challenging these and reality checking them is the first step.”
☆ Practice gratitude: “A gratitude journal can be a simple but really effective way of training the mind. It’ll take some time to start seeing the effects, so I always remind people this isn’t an instant fix,” he said. “Schedule a time (even if it’s a few minutes) each morning or night to write down at least five things that were positive, that went well or that you’re thankful for that day. With time and repeated practice our brain’s ability to actually pick up, hold on to and remember the positive rather than the negative can strengthen.”
☆ Try mindfulness: “A daily mindfulness technique (like yoga or a simple breathing exercise) can also help quiet our mind and allow us to take more control over what thoughts are flying through it,” said Dr. Kennedy. “Apps like CALM or Headspace are some great ways to start re-training things this way.”
Keep in mind that results won’t happen overnight and you have to teach your brain how to respond differently. According to Dr. Kennedy, consistency is most important to see changes.
“The key is making an effort consistently each day, and it’s from here that our mental habits and ways of thinking can start to change,” he said.
“Efforts to change our thinking style and bring more positive into mind than negative can take up to several weeks or more. It’s common for people to notice changes and improvements of some sort fairly quickly though, and even a single instant of catching out a negative thought during the day can change the trajectory of our day.”
If you’re struggling to let go of the negativity, try not to get too stressed about it.
“We need to be gentle on ourselves, and recognise that this is a practice that’ll get strengthen with time,” he said. “If it feels hard at first, or there are days/weeks where negative thinking seems to be ruling the roost then that’s OK. Take it a day at a time.”
For those who are plagued with negative thoughts, or something darker, reach out to loved ones or support services for help.
“Reaching out to others for help is something that’s really important,” said Dr. Kennedy. “Opening up about our thinking and feeling is never a weakness, so let a friend or family member know what you’re going through and seek out professional help if you need.
“For all of us, changing the way we think is really hard, and that’s part of the reason mental health professionals exist! Psychologists and mental health doctors are trained to help us pick up, challenge and change the way we think so talking to your GP or reaching out to your local mental health service might be the best move for those who find those negative thought patterns really hard to hit back on.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.