Negative Thoughts: Revealing Solutions and Retraining the Mind / by Sam Abelow

Original painting - see my mixed media portfolio here:

I wrote in a journal last winter:

"It’s when we’re alone at night, with our eyes closed, with no external world to fill our senses, that our thoughts, anxieties, ideas, inspirations, musings of all sorts and subconscious emotions rise to the surface and compete for our attention. In the broadness of the day’s sun, the details of our surroundings fill our minds and all is forgotten."

When there is quiet all the content from the recesses of our minds come to the forefront; they fight for our attention. Each day contains an array of assaulting stimulation — now maybe more than ever. These distractions and banalities divert our attention away from the potential solutions and insights that result from reflective thinking.

An Evolutionary Basis for Harping on the Negative

If we begin to observe the mind closely, we will see that it tends to emphasize the negative. My discovery of this was subjective and expressed poetically above. Interestingly, in the scientific literature there is vast evidence for a “negativity bias.”

Studies show that our brains, for evolutionary purposes of survival, recollect more readily the negative experiences in order to ensure avoiding potentially fatal errors again. A simple detection of relevance for survival, in the Amygdala organ of the brain, is responsible for this disposition in our psychology.[1] This is the source of the negativity bias.

So, our minds look for aberrant, unusual, potentially painful experiences and fixate on them, seeking to avoid potential mistakes again. But, our modern lives are extremely complicated compared to the clear-cut situations of our ancestors, whose concerns were: don’t get mauled by a lion, avoid consumption of poison berries. Still, the reality of our pre-wired compulsion to focus on what the mind perceives as a “danger” — what gives us strong negative emotions —  has massive implications for our contemporary experience of life!

Negativity bias acts in our mind unconsciously, as an effect of mere instinct. Influenced in this unacknowledged way, we remain unable to resolve the nuances of modern challenges. Additionally, because we’re so busy with each day, the only space for our unfinished, unfelt, unprocessed thoughts to come up is when we’re drifting off to sleep!

The Characteristics of Negative Thoughts

Our past negative experiences linger in us because the lessons in them have not been understood. Without the integration of their meaning, they act as veiled tethers weighing us down.[2] We can identify which memories and associations still need processing by the degree of intensity they provoke: If a memory brings up such powerful emotions as grief, regret or anger then it is insufficiently understood.

Lingering memories continue to hinder us presently. For example, when entering into a new relationship, the effects of a previous one may impose limitations on being present, open and truly ready.

If we can be diligent enough to just write out what bothers us, we may release its cognitive load. The American Psychological Association reports: “Writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory.”[3] Furthermore, if we can take a certain aberration or challenge and examine its contents and re-arranged them again, we will find the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom in it. I will explain more about these techniques in a future post.

To gain insight, we must train ourselves to see what we’re missing, what we didn’t already know, where our blind spot is.[4] This is a difficult task! We have to break through hanging on to “being right” and allow ourselves to see where we’re confused. This sort of reflexive honesty is tough, but worth it!

A recent page in my sketchbook personifies this counter-intuitive necessity:

“The painful, challenging experiences of our past follow us around with wires, pulleys and tethers. The more we resist their grasp, the tighter they pull. To relinquish the resistance of our past we must turn and face, untangle and sort their patterns, messages and significance.”

Training the Mind to Emphasize the Positive

Because of this natural tendency to focus on the negative, we might also cultivate the practice of recollecting, framing and instilling the positive, pleasurable and magical experiences in our lives. Emphasizing the positive can also be done through writing, which helps bring fullness and clarity to favorable memories, which our brains seem to ignore too readily!

Capturing our beautiful experiences in a high-resolution form permeates those memories with psychic energy. It makes the brain say, “This is important.” Neurologically, this would entail more neuron connection surrounding those memories as well as increased energy to the regions of the brain where positive memories are active.[5]

The combination of seeing the value in the negative experiences and training the mind to really soak in the positive experiences brings life more color, depth and quality of substance. In this modern world, you are the constructor of your own significance, the historian narrating your past and the director of your future story: choose deliberately how your existence should look.


[1] The Human Amygdala: An Evolved System for Relevance Detection, Sander, Grafman, Zalla, 2011

[2] I personify the past memories as “they” and “their,” because subjectively they act as autonomous personalities or energies, which are confronted as “other” to ourselves. This is known in personality theory, psychological models of different sorts. Look for Carl Jung’s idea of the Shadow for elaboration.

[3] Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (JEP: General) (Vol. 130, No. 3)

[4] See Carl Jung on intergration of the shadow.

[5] Read more on the positive emotional centers in the brain: