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Bad news sticks to our brains like Velcro

Published on
7 May 2020
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Bad news sticks to our brains like Velcro, and good news slides right off our brains like a soapy slip-n-slide. The antidote is to spend 15 concentrated seconds savouring good news when you see it.

Rick Hanson, Learning to learn from positive experiences

We can probably all identify with this quote, with a tendency to notice the bad and not the good in the world around us. So why do we do this? Put simply, our brains are biologically programmed to scan for danger/threats. Of course, this was incredibly useful thousands of years ago when the world was much simpler but also much more dangerous – less so today!

The first point to make is that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with us for getting bogged down with bad news – it’s simply our brains doing what they were designed to do.

It is also exacerbated by the rise of social media and the fact that world news is instantly accessible via our smartphones. If you were to see what is presented on the news day to day as an accurate representation of the ratio of good-bad in the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that we live in the most dangerous, volatile and unkind time in human history.

In fact, the world now is more stable, safer, kinder, and more liberal than ever before. The difference is, 100+ years ago when something bad happened, your only knew about it if it happened in your locality. Now, we hear bad news from the other side of the world almost instantly. But we hear far fewer reports of positive news from around the world, because it simply doesn’t grab our attention in the same way.

So, the first point to make is that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with us for getting bogged down with bad news – it’s simply our brains doing what they were designed to do. And they aren’t going to stop doing it overnight. The good news is that we can train our brains to notice the good things around us, and we can do this in several ways:

Forms of Mindful Practice/Meditation

Meditation (of which there are many forms) essentially trains our brains to notice thoughts, feelings and experiences and acknowledge them without judgement.

The upshot of this is that not only are we better able to notice troubling thoughts/emotions/experiences and process them so we can let them go, but we are also better able to notice positive and uplifting thoughts, feeling and experiences and choose to stay with them if we wish.

Gratitude Journaling

This is the basic practice of building a habit of writing down a few things every day that you are grateful for, or positive experiences you noticed. They can be as big or small as you like, and it is particularly useful if you can take a few seconds to revisit the feeling/experience and sit with it for a moment.

Some people find it helpful to write in a notebook, some find it preferable to write on post-its and put them in a jar. The latter allows you to tip them out from time to time and re-read them.

Taking A Moment

Taking a moment (15-30 seconds) to savour something positive that you notice in the moment. This could be something as small and simple as noticing the feeling of the warm sun on your face when you step outside.

Clearly every day contains a different ratio of positive to negative experiences, and right now of course there is a huge amount of troubling emotional turmoil for many people.

None of the above suggests that we should slip into ‘toxic positivity’ – pretending to ourselves or others that things that bother us don’t exist, or failing to acknowledge that things can be difficult.

Empathy to ourselves and others is vital during this period more than ever, as is being respectful to the incredible difficulties and losses that so many people are sadly dealing with due to Covid-19.

Really no emotion is ‘negative’, it simply is. But alongside noticing, acknowledging and accepting difficult thoughts, emotions and experiences, through the practices above we can slowly start to shift the ‘baseline’ of the way we see the world, and over time we start to notice more of the good in the world.

When we do this, our system releases more of the ‘feel good’ hormones – particularly dopamine and serotonin. Research has found that 30 days of daily practice of one or more these activities creates lasting neurological changes.

For more information on the research evidence, practical strategies and resources, a few key authors/titles to look up are:

A quote from Barbara Fredrickson sticks with me:

The negative shouts, the positive only whispers

The more we can make deliberate and conscious efforts to focus our attention on something good, the more our brain will start to instinctively search out and notice these things, which can only be good for our mental health at this challenging time.

Wishing everyone who reads this the very best in navigating these choppy waters to the other side.