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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Buckland

85% of Our Worries Don't Come True: Exploring the Four Traits Shaping Our Negative Bias

Updated: Mar 4

Carl Sagan's book 'The Cosmos' describes how the number of neurons in our brain can be compared to the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It's comparisons like this that highlight just how complex our minds are. You might have encountered social media claims suggesting we have between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts daily. Despite the lack of scientific evidence for these numbers, we can all relate to being bombarded with unwanted thoughts. What is backed by research is that our thoughts and the nature of these thoughts

subtly influence how we perceive the world, impacting ourmentall health and wellbeing.

The simple advice to 'just think more positively' is not as straightforward as it seems. Our thoughts are not entirely within our control; they are the product of our past experiences, forming habitual patterns that significantly affect our lives. The challenge arises from evolutionary traits in humans that predispose us to think negatively, affecting our stress levels and mental health. Research from Cornell University highlights the impact of our negative biases on our perception of reality. The study found that approximately 85% of our worries, stresses, or anxious thoughts never actually materialise, and the remaining 15% are often not as dire as we anticipate.

Approximately 85% of our worries, stresses, or anxious thoughts never actually materialise, and the remaining 15% are often not as dire as anticipated.

When our thought patterns lead us to experience high levels of worry, stress and anxiety, it can lead to a deterioration in our mental health. Although negative thoughts, stress and worrying don't necessarily cause poor mental health, they are present in all mental health conditions, such as:

  • Anxiety

  • Stress and burnout

  • depression

  • low self-esteem

  • PTSD

  • OCD

There are many practical tools available, such as self-help books, mental health training, coaching and counselling; however, understanding the root causes helps us apply effective and long-lasting strategies.

Why do we have this negative tendency?

Imagine a prehistoric version of ourselves, walking through grassy lands. Two versions exist: one thinks positive thoughts consistently, while the other tends to be cautious and anticipates potential dangers. Unbeknownst to our early friend here, a tiger lurks nearby, ready to pounce. The first individual strolls through the grass, whistling away without a care in the world, blissfully unaware of the lurking threat. The second is thinking the worst will happen and is more cautious in its approach. Who’s likely to live another day and pass their cautious genes on? Negative thinking has supported our survival.

Four Thought Habits That Fuel Our Negative Bias

  1. Forward Thinking: Thanks to the neocortex, the ability to imagine the future is an incredible upgrade. This latest addition features a function that creates future simulations, allowing us not to wait impatiently for the future but to tune into our mind-made, future-simulator to prepare for what comes next. However, when filled with stress, anxiety, and worry, our simulations can reflect our mental state, causing the simulator to trigger the stress and anxiety alarm even when there's no immediate concern.

  2. Thinking Backwards:  The mind-made, virtual reality future-simulator can also work in reverse, another impressive trick. In times of heightened anxiety or stress, it seeks solutions from past experiences of similar threats, causing painful or challenging memories to replay. This process, meant for rehearsal, can lead to increased worrying and a buildup of stress chemicals, triggering defensive responses without any real threat.

  3. Comparing Ourselves to Others: The common advice here is "don't do it," is as helpful as telling someone highly stressed to "calm down". The tendency to compare stems from our evolutionary need to belong or connect with a group, serving as a social barometer to gauge what's normal within our groups and society. However, the technological revolution exposes us to a wide array of groups and norms, leading to an overactive comparison instinct and feelings of not living up to expectations.

  4. The Inner Critic:  When we feel we're not meeting expectations, often a central theme people talk about at WellBe, internal mechanisms motivate us to align with perceived societal norms. Without a solid connection with accepting individuals, the inner critic uses guilt and shame to bring us back to group norms. The result? A tirade of thoughts: “You’re not good enough”, “why did you do that!?” “They are going to think….”. It’s exhausting and something we all have experienced from time to time. However, on an ongoing basis, these thought patterns can lead to internalised stress, anxiety, depression, low confidence, self-esteem issues and more.

This tendency to expect the worst was helpful to our prehistoric ancestors; being cautious meant we were more likely to survive. However, in modern-day demands, it can cause absolute havoc, causing chronic stress and negatively impacting our mental health and well-being. One key topic is how we internalise this negativity, whereby it’s turned directly towards us.

Reflections from Jo; therapist, former inner critic and evolving fellow human.

In my daily interactions, I meet people who carry within them internalised images that resemble exaggerated negative versions of themselves rather than accurate reflections, similar to a caricature. Today, I shared a story with a client to illuminate this phenomenon. I described an activity I once saw where an artist, separated by a curtain, drew portraits based on people's self-descriptions. These descriptions often highlighted perceived imperfections, such as an unusual nose or a prominent forehead. After the initial sketch, the artist drew the person again without the curtain as a barrier. Comparing the two portraits, it became evident how harshly we judge ourselves, portraying our features more negatively than others might. This exercise poignantly illustrates our tendency to magnify the negative, which leads to a skewed self-image in this scenario, but we can generalise it to all aspects of life. Recognising our evolutionary inclination towards negative thinking allows us to scrutinise our thoughts more closely. Rather than accepting every thought as truth, we can consciously develop healthier thinking habits that

gradually transform our perspective on ourselves.

Check out next week’s blog to find out how you can change your mind:

Negative Thinking and the Inner Critic: Take back Control with 5 Effective Strategies; How We Can Change Our Mind according to the latest neuroscience.

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