Depression and our negative bias
When we start to feel that our lives are a never-ending cycle of doom and gloom, it’s important to realise that a lot of it is simply down to the way our brains are wired! Positive stuff tends to roll through it while negative stuff gets flagged and captured. It’s sometimes referred to as our “negative bias” – our brains are simply more sensitive to negative information and this can make us prone to depression.
Research carried out by John Cacioppo involved showing people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (for example a Ferrari or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or a dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate or a hair dryer). At the same time he recorded electrical activity in the brain’s cerebral cortex. He found that there was a greater surge in electrical activity for the negative images than the positive or neutral images.
Our lives are made up of a combination of neutral, negative and positive experiences – and it’s the negative experiences that signal the greatest threats to survival. So our ancient ancestors that lived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to negative experiences.
Consider 80 million years or so of mammal evolution, starting with little rodent-like creatures dodging dinosaurs to stay alive and have babies in a worldwide Jurassic Park. Constantly looking over their shoulders, alert to the slightest crackle of brush, quick to freeze or bolt or attack depending on the situation. That same circuitry is loaded and fully operational in your brain as you drive through traffic, argue with your friends and family or hear an odd noise in the night.
But you can consciously override those tendencies in simple and effective ways each day, by focusing on positive experiences, valuing them, and helping them sink in. You can literally make yourself happy and avoid sinking into depression.
So what exactly is happening in our brains that makes us lean towards the negative?
- The amygdala is hard wired to look for the bad stuff
A small organ deep in the brain called the amygdala is like a switchboard that assigns a feeling tone to the stimuli flowing through the brain (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral) . it directs a response (run away! Fight back!) and is neurologically primed to look for the bad stuff. For example, when someone gives you feedback – whether it’s a parent, a friend or your boss – doesn’t your mind go straight to the hint of criticism and ignore the praise? And continue to mull over this criticism for hours or even days afterwards?!
- Bad stuff is flagged and stored away for future reference
When an event is flagged as negative, it is immediately stored it for future reference. Then it compares current events to the record of old painful ones, and if there are any similarities, alarm bells start ringing. Your brain doesn’t just go looking for what’s negative; it’s built to grab that information and never let go. When you look back at night on a typical day, what do you usually reflect on: the dozens of mildly pleasant moments, or the one that was awkward or worrisome? When you look back on your life, what do you muse about: the ten thousand pleasures and accomplishments, or the handful of losses and failures?
- The negative generally outweighs the positive
A single bad event for a child of being asked to read aloud in class when they did not feel confident, can lead to a crippling fear of ever having to speak out in public. . Famous research in the 1970s carried out by Martin Seligman found that it took only a short time to induce a sense of helplessness in dogs who were given mild electric shocks. They simply lay down and took the shocks even if escape was possible. It took an extraordinary effort to get them to unlearn that training. He called this “learned helplessness” and like those dogs, it’s as if we are predisposed to believe the worst about the world and ourselves. It is exactly the same sense of helplessness that in humans manifests itself as depression.
- Your own life experience shapes your view of the world and yourself
If you have experienced your life so far as being full of troubles and have the view that life is extremely tough and unfair, then even more of the negative will show up on your radar because you are scanning for it preferentially , or even unwittingly increasing the odds of it coming your way. Most events and experiences in our lives are neutral or positive and yet with our negative bias we simply can’t appreciate this!
So what can I do to feel more happy?
The most powerful thing you can do is to really focus on the positive stuff. Help positive events become positive experiences by:
- Paying attention to the good things in your world and inside yourself
So often, good events roll by our eyes without us noticing them. You could set a goal each day to actively look for beauty in your world, or signs of caring for you by others, or good qualities within yourself. Stop living your life on automatic – slow down, look around you – and if the TV and radio news depresses you, simply turn them off and listen to some uplifting music!
- Make a decision to allow yourself to feel pleasure and be happy
Never feel guilty about enjoying life. You’ve earned the good times so make the most of them. You’ll need the happy memories of those good times for when things get more challenging again.
- Doing things deliberately to create positive experiences for yourself.
For example, you could take on a challenge, or do something nice for others, or bring to mind feelings of compassion and caring. Alternatively call up the sense or memory of feeling contented, peaceful, and happy. Keep your attention on it so it lingers; don’t just jump onto something else. Sometimes we actually feel slightly uncomfortable with positive feelings – or with taking time out for ourselves. But remember that if you are exhausted, stressed and miserable, you aren’t going to be of any use to anyone else! Positive experiences have many important benefits. They lower the stress response in your body by dampening the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response) and by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxed and contented). They increase psychological resilience, lift mood and protect against depression and promote optimism. They can also help to counter-act the effects of trauma or other painful experiences.
For a related article on beating depression, click here.
For information on my depression counselling Cork services, click here
More information or support?
If you would like more information or advice, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541
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