In short, yes. There are scores of reasons for why this is true, and the consequences can be far ranging and difficult to overcome. But, with a little neurological know-how and some discipline, even the most pessimistic and neurotic among us can learn to undo these patterns of negative thinking and undo many of those consequences.
The Brain Was Not Designed for 21st Century Stress
One of the most essential pieces of information to understand the human mind is that it was optimized to function in an environment that could not be more different from the modern world. Far in the ancient reaches of humanity’s origins, the world was a harsh and unforgiving place.
In fact, for most of human recorded history this is true, food scarcity, competition for available resources, shelter, mates to reproduce with, danger from predators or environmental hazards.
For the overwhelming majority of human evolutionary history. We were dealing regularly with threats that would, if we did not respond correctly to them, end our lives. Also, the lives of those we cared about.
And now? Think about the last time you were in danger of dying. Think about the last time someone you know was in danger of dying. That you’re reading this on the internet right now means that the likelihood of you having to fend off a predator or fight another human with weapons in order to obtain food for yourself and your family is very low. Not to discount our struggles in today’s world. But predatory animals are not the primary concern and that is a new thing. Food scarcity, for most of modern society, is not a primary concern, that is also a new thing.
Yet our brains have hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary training telling them to be watchful for these problems. When coupled with the sorts of repeated long term (yet existentially minor) threats we experience. Like having to stop suddenly in our car, a coworker who gossips behind our back, looming financial troubles etc. The parts of our brain designed to respond to physical threats can get turned on in response to these things.
There are many things in our lives that stress us in ways that other things don’t. We lose the ones we love and people we care about and it’s hard to think that you will ever move on from that. It can be hard to be positive in the face of such adversity and life hardship. The people who are grateful however are the ones who recover more quickly and find themselves again.
Having gratitude can help counter the horrible emotions that can naturally come to us. Gratitude also reduces aggression while helping us have more empathy for ourselves and everyone around us. This is what helps us have a better relationship with ourselves and others.
It is Almost like Having Two Minds
While it isn’t terribly accurate, we only have one brain (though there are a surprisingly high number of neurons in our gut—a post for another day) it is easy to conceptualize this dynamic in our brains as having two related, but distinct minds. One mind, what most of us would describe as the “conscious mind,” is located in the prefrontal cortex and has to do with our thoughts, complex feelings, and the narrative that we form to explain ourselves and the world around us. The other mind, what we’d usually call the “subconscious” or the “deep emotional” mind, is located nearer to our brain stem, where the seats of intense, ancient emotions exist like fear and anger and have more to do with our body’s physical response to stimuli.
These two minds, though they are at home in the same organ, interact and affect one another greatly. If you dwell on negative emotions (I’m worried that we won’t have enough money next year when our student loan payments go up) long enough in your conscious mind, the unconscious mind can perceive that there is a threat. As a result, your hands might get clammy, your pulse might quicken, your breathing can get fast and shallow. These stress responses would be very helpful if a tiger or a wolf was lurking outside the door. But since it is in not this stress response without an outlet or real direct source can cause a host of problems.
Prolonged exposure to stress like this can cause a kind of fatigue that can be difficult to overcome. Mental energy is needed to engage in self-regulation (preventing oneself from engaging in harmful or unhelpful behavior such as cleaning or eating healthy food), and prolonged stress exposure reduces the ability of one’s mind to replenish this kind of energy, which makes us less able to engage in the sort of work that can help us rest well. This creates a feedback loop where things get worse and worse as time goes on unless a change is made.
The Journal of Clinical Psychology did a study on the effects of worrying on task performance. A group of participants were asked to answer some questions and then assigned a task. They were asked to sort some objects into two different categories. People who reported that they worried 50% of the time or more had a significantly higher disruption in their ability to complete the task as the difficulty of sorting increased.
Worrying constantly or having anxious or stressful thoughts for extended periods of time can actually alter your brain’s physical characteristics and how it responds to stress.
The Amygdala is the part of the brain nearest to the brain stem, and it controls fear and anger response, among other things. When we are stressed, the amygdala floods the brain with chemicals to prepare us for fight or flight responses. With chronic stress, the amygdala can become overcharged, reacting too quickly to not very much stimulus; People who experience panic attacks know exactly what this over-response feels like. This can be a terrifying thing to go through, and it is exhausting to come down from.
People who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experience an extreme form of this amygdala hyperactivity. Let’s say you’re a veteran with PTSD and you’re out walking your dog in your neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. You served in Iraq, where an explosion caused by an improvised device injured you and several others. This is the inciting incident for your Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You’re walking your dog in a rural town in the middle of winter. And suddenly an old car driving a block away backfires, causing a loud popping sound to echo in the street.
Your amygdala, which recorded the experiences of trauma from that explosion and all the pain and months of healing that were required to recover from that, and decides that just in case this is about to happen again that you should be ready. You suddenly feel a rush of anger or fear, your fists clench, you start to sweat. Also, your breathing gets shallower and faster, you start to dart your eyes around the street looking for threats.
This is the extreme end of amygdala hyperactivity, and while most people won’t experience this level of response. Panic attacks induced by chronic stress can be debilitating and frightening.
How can we address this?
The brain, thankfully, is malleable and does not record responses to trauma or chronic stress permanently. These same minds that were designed to handle threats to our physical well being were also designed to find a way to move past them, after all, it is in our best interest to be well rested, fed adequately, and able to engage socially with the people around us.
Through intentional focus and repetition, we can undo many of these unconscious responses and make our amygdala less immediately responsive when it doesn’t need to be. “Brains are good at learning from bad experiences but bad at learning from good experiences. (This is What Negative Thinking Does to Your Brain and Body)”
Our minds are optimized (because of our history with threats and food scarcity) to bias towards negative stimulus since they were far more likely to cause pain or death in the past. This means that when we’re trying to learn to focus on positive experiences and improve our happiness. It is going to take a little more work than just having good days and experiencing good things.
In order to process positive experiences into our long term memory (which increases our overall happiness and the standard resting state of our mood), that requires intentional focused attention. Like eating an especially good meal, we have to savor the positive moment. When it happens and consciously think about it for at least a few seconds (most positive psychologists suggest around 30 seconds or so).
When we do savor the moment, the memory is imprinted into our long-term memory rather than our short-term. Which means a month from now we can remember that thing that happened, which makes us happy again. Just as negative experiences can harm us long after we’ve moved past the initial moment. Positive experiences can pay dividends beyond their initial occurrence, but we have to be intentional about focusing on them.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool in this rewiring of our brain. As it engages us with our body as well as enacting practices that do the kind of positive thought work we were talking about a moment ago. We’ll cover meditation in more detail in a future post, but for now, try this simple exercise:
- Breathe in deep through your nose, til your chest moves out slightly, and then exhale through your mouth.
- When you breathe in, count “one” in your head, then when you exhale count “two” in your head as well. Feel free to mouth the numbers but don’t say them out loud, just focus on breathing deep and slow. Count to ten in this way.
- After you’ve done this two or three times, let your breath return to whatever is normal for you. Think about a moment you had in the last week that made you laugh. Remember how you felt in your body, how relaxed you were, how wonderful the action of laughing felt. In your mind say “I’m thankful for that moment. Whatever else happened last week, I had this one moment of humor and joy.”
Exercises like this can help us learn to control our emotional state by regulating our physical selves (breathing, pulse, etc.). If you make a regular practice of this or a similar meditation, you will find that when moments of stress come, you can breathe in a controlled way and slowly overcome that stress when it might normally run you over. Bad days will still happen, and sometimes they’ll still overwhelm you, but you can fight back a little bit more each time.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful for this too. A neutral, non-judgmental third party that can reflect our self-talk back to us and point out areas where we might have blind spots can have an immensely positive effect on our well-being. They can teach us specific coping mechanisms to manage anxiety or panic attacks when they come, and help us see ways in which our lifestyle might be worsening our mental health and increasing our chronic stress.
A therapist friend gave me this last tool I’ll share in which she suggested could be used whenever someone feels overwhelmed. But especially when they feel an oncoming rush of anxiety or panic. She called it grounding, and it is a simple exercise where you focus on one thing with each of your five senses. So first you notice one thing you can see, then one thing you can touch, taste, hear, feel. If the panic is continuing you can keep doing this, or alternate between grounding and breathing deeply through the nose and out through the mouth slowly and with focus.
We have all heard people say that our lives can be changed with a positive attitude. One of the things that we may wonder though is if having a grateful attitude can have a positive effect on our brain? I had my own curiosity about positivity because I believe you can have a better life experience if we learn to be grateful for what we have and what we have been given by others.
It isn’t easy to undo the changes negative thinking can make in our brains, but it’s absolutely worth the investment. Tools for managing anxiety or panic attacks, understanding how brain alters and causes how we feel in response to things. And learning what makes us more or less stressed is important if we are to turn the tide on negative thought patterns.
Questions & Answers
Meditation is not easy for me, is there a way I can be guided through this process?
Absolutely. Paying someone to teach meditation in a classroom setting or something similar can be risky. So I’d only go to an in-person class for meditation with either a licensed therapist who also teaches sed classes or someone who has the recommendation of a person you respect and trust.
Outside of that, the internet has tons of options. Headspace is an app where you can put in headphones and be guided through short, simple meditations. There are free options that work exceptionally well (this is how I started meditating), but paid ones for specific goals like anxiety management, stress reduction, etc.
There are other apps too, and some of your favorite writers/thinkers might be getting into it! I know Sam Harris has been working on a mindfulness app for a while, if he’s your kind of thing.
My stress and anxiety feels unmanageable, I can’t handle work and I have a hard time taking care of myself, eating, sleeping, etc., what should I do?
There are times (as is the case with many people who have PTSD) when these sorts of self-management skills will not be enough to overcome the ways in which you are suffering. Everyone is different, but a good rule of thumb is that if your anxiety/stress makes it hard to take care of yourself, work, or do any other important daily tasks, you should see a professional.
Whether that’s a therapist who can meet with you regularly to work through whatever is going on, or maybe a doctor or a psychiatrist who can help you manage with medication and help you with finding a diagnosis if you are suffering from a specific mood disorder. If you experience severe depression, suicidal ideation, you absolutely should seek support. Sometimes the world is overwhelming, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with reaching out if you need it.
Lifeline – Suicide Prevention