Negativity Might Harm Your Brain More Than You Think, 3 Tips to Help

Less than seconds after the word “NO” is uttered, dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters erupt in the speaker’s and listener’s brain, says Andrew Newberg, former director of The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, and Mark Waldman, an associate research fellow. Those chemicals immediately disrupt the normal functioning of the brain, damaging logic, reason, language processing, and communication. [1]

Are We Affected by Negativity?

The word “NO” is not responsible for all negative consequences. Negative thoughts or conversations get increasingly difficult to stop as they persist, according to the two neurologists. The brain reacts to negative fantasies like poverty, disease, and death as if they were real events, though they have never happened. 

Findings also show that negative words uttered in surgical wards lead to the release of cortisol, a stress-producing hormone, and failure of patient-controlled analgesia (PCA). [2]

Besides, fearful and angry facial expressions, too, create anxiety and irritability, to which the brain’s amygdala will respond more violently than they do at the sight of attacks or mutilations. [3]

Unfortunately, the brain is less responsive to positive information than to negative information or angry facial expressions, which are more impactful. [4]

That situation is widely seen in our lives in terms of close relationships, social network patterns, and learning processes. Either negative moods, negative feedback, or less benevolent parents are more influential than good ones. Bad impressions are easier to create, and bad events spread more quickly and widely. [5]

Such a stereotype in the brain carries far-reaching implications. For some people, that tends to make things move toward worse outcomes.

Jiun-Min Ko, a clinical psychologist at the Kaohsiung Drug Abuser Treatment Center under the Agency of Corrections, Taiwan’s Ministry of Justice says that there are many high achievers among the drug addicts under his care. This includes professors, doctors, and business owners. They share one common trait: always ruminating on negative information or side issues but disregarding positive feedback, even mistaking neutral or positive comments as negative.

For example, one of Ko’s patients was a college lecturer, who suffered from depression and underwent rehabilitation treatment at the center for use of illegal drugs. The teacher was a perfectionist, always deeming himself not excellent enough.

He was once third in a nationwide papers contest, but he viewed himself as a loser for failing to win the first prize. In his eyes, congratulations from his colleagues were “insincere compliments, and I would do the same if I were they.” He even went so far as to assume that his colleagues must have scorned him behind his back.

So, negative notions haunted his brain terribly, putting him under huge pressure. Eventually, he encountered scoundrels on social media platforms, who egged him on to take drugs to dispel boredom.

As Ko points out, many similar cases go with depression. Previous studies suggest negative stimuli and memories tend to promote depression. [6]

Rewards and Recognition Build a Positive Cycle

Why so? Positive information poses no threat to the human body itself, requiring no immediate action. Therefore, the brain turns to focus attention on negative information. [7]

The amygdala in the brain evaluates the environment to spot potential threats. If a threat does appear, the amygdala can stay active and respond to new stimuli. Studies show the amygdala was activated in a similar pattern as people viewed negative images and neutral faces that followed, thus causing increases in negative daily mood and decreases in positive daily mood. [8] 

A recent July study published in Nature reveals the impact of a sweet treat and electric shock on the mice’s brain nerves as well as the secretion of substances. It concludes that the brain’s default state is to have a bias toward fear, meaning that neurons associating negative perceptions and memories are activated until neurons associating positive perceptions are activated as neurotensin is released. Those affected neurons are all located at the basolateral amygdala. [9][10]

That, researchers say, helps people avoid potential dangers, which also resonates with people who tend to find the worst in a situation.

Joan Zeng, a researcher at Albert Einstein Medical Institute, expresses that offering a sweet treat to the mice prompts its brain to secret neurotensin, thus reinforcing a cycle of good memories. According to Zeng, the same holds true for cultivating talent. She notes that humans also need reward and recognition to build and solidify a positive cycle. 

Since the brain also reacts to positive information, people can intentionally nurture positive moods, which even benefit pessimists or those with mild or medium-level depression. [11]

Positive and Negative Moods Are Significant to Humans

Negative moods stimulate people to focus their attention and awareness, with physiological adjustments made to tackle immediate threats or challenges. In contrast, positive moods help enhance ego-resilience, an individual’s ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment. Those high on ego resilience have a stronger potential for rebounding from adversity and stress, warding off depression, and continuing to grow in the face of equally severe negative moods. 

Joan Zeng expresses that strong negative moods may be self-perpetuating. For example, resentment—the most common negative mood—is associated with many breast cancer cases. Apart from that, Zeng accuses some media outlets of hyping up bad news to boost pageviews, which stirs up negative reactions immediately and grabs readers’ attention, as society is plagued by negative messages. However, this tactic exerts a harmful impact on the whole of society.

How should we overcome bad moods resulting from negative messages and build positive ones? Here are a few know-hows. 

Create 3 Positive Thoughts for Every Negative One

To remove an existing negative thought, notion, or prejudice, one may think of good events or the other party’s merits. But any specific recommendation? Findings show we have to develop at least three positive ideas or perceptions. [12]

Married couples need five positive messages to make up for a single negative utterance to maintain a solid relationship between them. 

Sitting Meditation With Righteous Thoughts

Although we may turn a deaf ear to negative messages, they invade our lives aggressively. We can strengthen our “resistance” and foster positive moods and righteous psychological strength.

Ko recommends sitting meditation with righteous thoughts for about 20 minutes every day, which will contribute to significant changes in terms of happiness, health, relationships, and resilience. 

Zeng, too, recommends sitting in trance, which she says can interrupt the damage of the brain by negative messages, because meditation enhances Gamma waves, a peaceful brainwave that leads to stronger stress resilience and prevents people from being pushed into extreme moods like anxiety or despair. [13]

Zeng, who practices sitting meditation daily, shares that regular meditation helps improve her ability to balance her mood. Therefore, she is less likely to be affected by negative messages and usually arrives at beneficial outcomes in whatever she does.

So far, meditation, repeated prayers, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and qigong all have been proven to trigger the Relaxation Response (RR)—a body and mind intervention that counteracts stress-caused negative impact. [14]

The RR lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate, and causes changes in the cerebral cortex and subcortex, which involve people’s sensual perceptions, language, moods or emotional processing, and memory.

The above studies, Zeng notes, suggest neurotensin can be applied to develop new medicine to readjust the brain while being kind or complimenting others plays exactly the same role as neurotensin does, which will spark positive responses and feedback from other parties at the same time. 

Ko, too, expresses that a great number of studies have confirmed that helping others will make us happier and bring us psychological benefits.

Methods of expressing thanks include thanking others thus “creating” a positive mood.

Other options include exercising regularly, reliving good memories, and keeping a diary. By writing a diary, you can indulge yourself in hopes and dreams and imagine what your future would be like if all your goals are met. Those positive thoughts, even though they are irrational, can still advance your sense of happiness and life satisfaction.  [15]

Finally, if you are already in a negative mood, you may take the following four-step approach to adjust yourself, according to Ko.

  1. Pause. Stop what you are doing right now and leave the scene to calm yourself.
  2. Breathe. Take repeated deep breaths to relax your muscles. 
  3. Look inside. Calm yourself and consider what’s really going on and if your ideas are realistic.
  4. Choose. Choose the most helpful option for you rather than resort to a mere emotional response. Ask yourself: Does my response help with the current situation? Will this make me feel a bit better or less stressed? Does my response really help myself or others?

The four steps above will prevent you from getting further pulled into a crisis and will help in centering yourself. 

Camille Su


Camille Su is a health reporter covering disease, nutrition, and investigative topics. Have a tip?

Health 1+1


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