By Sue Ingebretson
What would you say if I asked you, “What are your greatest fears?” When it comes to your health specifically, what anxieties come to mind? This is a common discussion topic in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities. And, while the responses to that question are important, I’d like to take some time here to share my investigations into WHY that’s a frequent topic of discussion.
Why do we often talk about, debate, and deliberate over our fears?
Perhaps you feel that question is rhetorical. After all, life with a chronic illness gives us plenty of reasons to be anxious. This fear-based focus is logically concentrated for those of us who battle health challenges. It’s interesting to note that this tendency applies to the general population, too.
There are some important reasons why.
Here’s a scenario that may be familiar to you. It’s likely that you’ve experienced something similar – whether it’s in a support group meeting, a doctor’s waiting room, or an online chat forum. The example below isn’t meant to be satirical, but rather an illustration of an actual event.
I once spoke at a fibromyalgia support group where the Q&A after my nutrition lecture went something like this –
ME: So, now that I’ve shared fundamental nutrition information on what foods to ADD to your diet, do you have questions?
ATTENDEE #1: I don’t like broccoli, it makes me sick.
ATTENDEE #2: Brussels sprouts are just gross. No one likes them.
ME: Sure, we all have various food likes and dislikes. There are thousands of veggie varieties to try. What nutrients help you to feel your best?
ATTENDEE #1: Pineapples don’t work for me. They’re too expensive and hard to cut open.
ATTENDEE #2: I almost sliced a finger off cutting into a mango once.
You get the picture.
(I did eventually steer the conversation toward a positive discussion on the health benefits of anti-inflammatory foods, but it took some persistent and persuasive nudging on my part.)
If you ask a group of people (any group!) to share how they feel, you’re going to get a variety of answers, for sure. The question of the day, however, is do the responses weigh in on the negative side more often than the positive?
As mentioned, this scenario is true in the cyber world as well as in everyday life. In fact – even more so. There’s actually such a thing as Online Disinhibition Effect (1) where anonymity seems to increase the odds of negative comments and patently aggressive behaviors.
I experience this regularly. For example, if I write a blogpost or article about a specific food, nutrient or recipe, the odds are fair to middling that someone will leave a negative comment stating they dislike the food, are allergic or sensitive to it, or that it doesn’t “work” for them.
Are fibrofolk just plain cranky?
While that may seem like a logical conclusion, it’s actually inaccurate. Considering that I’m part of the fibromyalgia demographic, I’m glad to know it’s not so.
Years ago, I discovered a few facts about negativity and our tendency to bring up problems rather than solutions. I was fascinated to learn that the reason for this negative focus lies in the function of the brain. And, it also happens to involve some math, our caveman ancestors, Velcro, and Teflon.
Intrigued? Read on.
Brain Math By the Numbers
Did you know that 2/3 of the neurons in your brain’s amygdala are used to detect – and store – negative stimuli? (2) The amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for emotions, motivations, and survival instincts. For those of us who need a calculator to do the math, I’ll give you the skinny on what that really means.
Only 1/3 of our brain’s resources are used to detect positive stimuli.
To compound this matter, studies demonstrate that negative stimuli gets stored into long-term memory almost immediately but not so for the positive stuff. We must hold a positive thought or image in our conscious awareness for at least 12 seconds or more for it to transfer to long-term memory. (3)
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When I read that, my first question was, “Seriously … 12 seconds? How do they measure that minutia?” Then the all-important word “stored” caught my attention.
Why does it matter which stimuli is stored most?
Further research reveals that the reasons for this disproportionate storage tendency are tied into our survival mechanisms as a species. Learning – and remembering – what’s dangerous or threatening is far more beneficial to survival than remembering positive things.
When you think about it, it was probably more important for our caveman ancestors to remember the painful belly ache associated with a toxic red berry than to remember how pretty that scarlet-colored fruit looked on the vine in the afternoon sunlight.
Cavemen wouldn’t have been very prolific on Pinterest or Instagram.
All kidding aside, this distinction is vital. I love the simplicity of how Hardwired for Happiness author Rick Hanson, PhD explains this philosophy. He states, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but like Teflon for positive ones.” (4)
Doesn’t that make it abundantly clear?
notice, remember, and focus
on negative stimuli.
I hope you caught the most important word in that sentence. Here’s a hint: It starts with an “n” but isn’t notice or negative. The tendency to focus on the negative comes naturally. We don’t have to use our limited resources of energy to make it happen. It just does.
So, how do we create balance when nature has stacked the deck against us?
We use the power of intention.
Because naturally focusing on negativity takes place without thought, it stands to reason that changing that focus takes thought. It takes an intentional, planned, and pragmatic approach to see a shift in our daily positive outlook.
Sometimes it’s like pushing a tangle of tree limbs upstream, but so very worth the effort. Shifting our focus from (automatic) negative thoughts to (intentional) positive ones takes practice.
How can you make it happen? It’s as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be.
Putting Your Brain’s Positivity Super Powers to Work
It’s possible, with intention, to shift our focus toward what we DO want. It begins with increasing our awareness of positive thoughts. When we start to become aware of the good things in life, we find ourselves intentionally involved in activities that instill a happier, healthier, and more optimistic outlook. As an added bonus, we may also find ourselves surrounded by others who also practice this intention.
Are you ready?
Here are the top three ways to re-direct your focus towards the positive and make it a daily practice.
- GRATITUDE JOURNAL – While you’ve probaby heard this before, are you actually putting this powerful resource into practice? It’s as simple as jotting down three things for which you’re thankful each evening before bed. Each evening, think of three new and different things. This practice helps with positivity, sleep, focus, and calmed anxiety.
Here are a few resources to get you started:
- MEDITATION – Whether you pray, meditate, follow guided imagery recordings, or practice “moving meditations” such as tai chi or qigong, meditative activities are powerfully healing. Meditation does NOT mean sitting ramrod still for prolonged periods of time in utter silence – unless that’s your thing. Meditation can be practiced while walking in nature, crocheting, watching the sunset, or any activity that gives you a bit of breathing space.
Here are a few meditation practice resources:
- GET MOVING – This tip performs double duty. Moving the body (in healthy ways) is not only meditative, it’s also a great detoxifier, mood elevator, and all around healthy activity. Moving the body helps to oxygenate the blood, improves digestion, mental clarity and so much more.
Here are tips, reasons, and encouragement to help you get started:
While I can share the results of numerous scientific studies on positivity, the ultimate conclusive results that matter are yours. What personal shifts have profited you the most?
For me, the shifts I made in eating healthier foods led to me seek out fitness activities. From there, my mood naturally lifted and I felt called to learn more about positivity and how to intentionally create it for myself. That, in turn, led me to create a life, business, and future of positive intention.
That’s my path. What’s yours?
- Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling
- Are We Hardwired to Be Positive or Negative?
- Confronting the Negativity Bias
Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth’s Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker, and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner, and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.
Would you like to find out more about the effects of STRESS on your body? Download Sue’s free Is Stress Making You Sick? guide and discover your own Stress Profile by taking the surveys provided in this detailed 23-page report.