Not too long ago, I was in a New York City restaurant when I heard two young women chatting. One of the women was confiding in her friend, telling her about some anxiety she felt about school and her job. She told her that she worries about not doing well in her math course and potentially getting laid off at work.
The woman’s friend asked her questions about her new relationship, a trip she had coming up, and the stunning coat she’d received as a gift for her birthday from her mom and dad. After each question, the woman would answer with a sentence or two, then immediately talk about the anxiety she had been feeling. As much as her friend tried to push positive topics into their conversation, the woman would return to the topics of worry and distress.
Results from research regarding worry show that negative emotions tend to be stronger than positive ones. How much stronger are they? We don’t really know, but what we do know is that negativity is commonly thought to be more readily available in our conscious mind. This is often referred to as “negativity bias” in our thinking.
The Evolution of Negative Bias
Looking at it from an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Pessimism and negative thoughts were practically essential for survival. Thousands of years ago, we associated with those only in our community; we were also apprehensive about the foods we could consumer as well as what animals to steer clear of. However, times have changed.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop negative thinking all together. Actually, we need it. Negative thinking is important in our decision-making process—you wouldn’t want to feel hopeful when crossing railroad tracks if the train is headed your way. Balance is critical. Because negative thoughts are dominant, they are harder to change, and they overtake our positive feelings. One bad thing happening can minimize all the positive things that happen that day.
Positivity Leads Us into an Upward Spiral of Emotions
Barbara Fredrickson, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a prominent researcher in the field. Her research focused on positivity, and her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, have progressed our knowledge on how positive emotions intensify our awareness and support novel thoughts and behaviors.
Fredrickson says that as we continue to build skills and acquire resources for feeling positive emotions, we generate an upward spiral of positivity. In the upward spiral, we begin with contentment and rise to hopefulness, optimism, positive expectations, enthusiasm, passion— then joy, empowerment and love. What is distinctive to her theory is that it goes beyond positive thinking and is also about feeling emotions.
The upward spiral of emotions is opposite of the restraining, downward, and survival-based thoughts and actions associated with negativity. Boredom allows pessimism, frustration, disappointment, doubt, worry, blame, discouragement, anger, revenge, rage, revenge, jealousy, insecurity, and eventually powerlessness and depression. When you become swept up in a spiral of negativity, it’s like falling into a well.
When you work to broaden and build, you begin to make a conscious effort to notice, search out, and savor positive experiences. The more we experience positive emotions, our options for responding to these emotions expand. Most of the time, the positive emotions are short lived, but even then, they are still found to improve character traits and social bonds that have a lasting effect.
How to Stop a Downward Spiral and Its Negative Effects
When you feel like you’re spiraling down, the best thing you can do is make a conscious effort to stop it. Some ways to alleviate the spiraling could be watching a movie that makes you laugh, exercising, or thinking about some of your favorite memories. When we have negative thoughts, it’s harder to feel the good emotions. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still important!
Our cardiovascular system is directly affected by our negative emotions. When we experience negative feelings, it is a direct source of stress sent straight to our cardiovascular system. Negative feelings originated in order to help us survive, so they prepare us for immediate action. Our heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar all escalate, and our immune system takes a hit. If this type of reaction occurs for an extended period of time, it can lead to chronic diseases.
When you allow yourself to dive into positive feelings, you can undo these harmful effects. But that doesn’t happen without a little effort. When you start to eliminate spiraling downward, more options become available to feel positivity.
Prioritize Joy, Gratitude, Love, and Other Positive Emotions
Fredrickson tells us that we long for joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and the main one—love. Making an effort to have more of these in your life allows you to pull yourself out of the well, and to also avoid falling in less often.
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