Why We Dwell On The Negative + How To Stop

Written by Cris Antonio
Why We Dwell On The Negative + How To Stop

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You might wonder why you remember the moments that make you unhappy more clearly than the ones that make you happy, but human beings in general remember negative experiences more than happy ones.

Stanford University professor, Clifford Nass, explained that negative or stressful moments are processed differently in our brains, leading us to recall them in more detail than happy memories.

We are hardwired to dwell on negative experiences because they are platforms for learning.

Professor Teresa M. Amabile of the Harvard Business School asked more than 200 professionals working on various projects and at various companies to keep a daily journal over the course of several months.

Upon analyzing the entries, Professor Amabile found that a single negative setback – particularly in conjunction with the day’s progress – affected the worker twice as much as something good that happened during the day.

This could explain why you sometimes feel distraught after a criticism at the office, even hours after going home. But that doesn't mean we're born pessimists or incapable of seeing the bright side.

We are hardwired to dwell on negative experiences because they are platforms for learning. This, according to Professor Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, is a key element in our survival.

Understanding this provides insight into ourselves and the way we react to the world around us. So, how do we stop dwelling on these awful moments when the recounting process ceases to be productive?

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1. Admit to yourself that you’re thinking too much.

After all, you can’t solve a problem if you don’t first recognize that you have one. Do you immediately feel affected by criticism? Are you sensitive to unsolicited advice from well-meaning friends or family members? Are you in the habit of ruminating on past failures? Acknowledging your emotions is the first step toward taking control of them.

2. Distract yourself.

If you find yourself ruminating needlessly over a bad breakup, ask friends to go for an afternoon coffee. Immerse yourself in a hobby. Taking up activities such as sports, art, or crafting is a great way to take your mind off something negative.

The reason I got lost in the woods in the first place was that I was trying to clear my head after an argument with my mother. After the short excursion, I felt better equipped to deal with the situation.

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3. Think about possible solutions to your problem.

Remember the doctor Robin Williams met in Patch Adams? He told Patch to “look past the problem." Often, we as humans like to blow things out of proportion, just to make things sensational. Try to be as objective as possible — even if you still feel awful about the particular memory.

For example, if you're recovering from the loss of a loved one, consider activities that make you happy and keep you busy, to help yourself avoid wallowing.

4. Be gentle with yourself.

It sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised how much more critical you are toward yourself than toward others. Confidence is key to success, but often a small setback is enough to destroy whatever self-worth you may have had. Again, try not to give too much credence to one or two perceived "failures." Believe in your ability to succeed again. Keep moving forward.

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5. Know that it will take time.

It's not about forgetting the bad things that have happened. It’s all about learning to accept that there are things we can't control and focusing on the things we do control. It won't always hurt. You will make it through. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you'll get there.

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