Human brains are wired to highlight fear, but we can overcome negativity bias—if we understand it. Read on for more information about negativity bias, to help you stay sane and act effectively during this coronavirus pandemic.
I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work online during this COVID-19 pandemic. I have a comfortable home. We have plenty of food in the refrigerator. Our neighborhood is relatively spread out, so we can walk freely outside.
Still, I feel a free-floating mix of anxiety, apprehension, dread, and sadness coming and going from my body all day. I hear friends, clients, and colleagues describing a similar experience. Some of us are stressed because we don’t have money coming in to buy food or pay the rent. Those of us who are lucky enough not to have those stressors (yet) are worried about all the people who do. All of us are heartbroken for people who are sick or dying, and for their loved ones.
I don’t feel right looking away from all this suffering. In fact, it’s hard to pull myself away from it—even though looking too long and hard completely overwhelms me. Why is this? I’ve been reading Hardwiring Happiness by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, and it dawned on me that I’ve been experiencing the very phenomenon he describes in the book: negativity bias.
Why negativity bias particularly matters for HSPs
Negativity bias is our human tendency to be more strongly affected by negative events or thoughts than by positive or neutral ones. As Hanson puts it, all humans “routinely overstate threats and understate opportunities and resources.” If we are capable of overstating minor threats, no wonder we are struggling with a major threat like COVID-19.
If you are a highly sensitive person, you really need to understand negativity bias so you can counteract it. Otherwise you may be particularly susceptible to negativity bias, because of your deep-processing capacity. Deep processing can be a gift, but only if the information we take in is accurate. Remember the computer principle known as “GIGO”—or “garbage in, garbage out”? That applies to our brains as well as our laptops. GIGO affects everyone, but it affects HSPs more because we go so deep and so far with our thoughts.
On the bright side, because we process so deeply, HSPs can benefit greatly from even minor improvements in our thinking habits. There is no overnight strategy to overcome negativity bias. But using the tools in Hanson’s book, we can gradually retrain our brains to take in the positive more and more, creating a virtuous cycle. You don’t have to make extra time to do it: you can fit Hanson’s techniques seamlessly into your daily activities. And right now, with a pandemic going on, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice these new skills.
“Taking in the good” during the day
Hanson organizes his process into four steps, using the acronym “HEAL.” As you take in these techniques, don’t be deceived by their apparent simplicity. In practice, they are powerful:
1. Have a positive experience
2. Enrich it
3. Absorb it
4. Link positive and negative material
Hanson emphasizes that simply having a positive experience is not enough. Positive experiences will “bounce” off” your mind, evaporating like water falling on a hot surface. Our brains are hardwired first and foremost to keep us alive. Accordingly, we rapidly register and remember any possible threat, while overlooking positive experiences.
As a result, “catching” and keeping a positive experience requires conscious effort. You have to notice the positive experience, appreciate it, and amplify it in any way you can. There are many details in the book to help you do this skillfully, but even understanding this key point can transform your approach to “taking in the good,” as Hanson calls it.
Fortunately, we are surrounded by positive experiences. And this is true even during intensely stressful times like these. You can look for places in your body that feel OK. You can recall events you enjoyed, or notice objects in your environment that are beautiful, or useful, or comfortable. You can imagine a desired event coming to pass, or picture a person you love.
Then, to enrich and absorb a positive experience, you simply hold it in your awareness for twenty seconds or more. The more you think about and feel the experience and why it matters to you, the more your neurons will fire and wire together—the foundation of neurobiological change.
If you practice Focusing or Inner Bonding, or if you are in therapy, you can easily incorporate Hanson’s first three steps, to powerful effect. Whenever you sense a positive shift in your inner process, pause. Take time to feel this positive feeling. Enrich it, and let it sink in. And as you come to the end of your session, actively invite yourself to sense any feelings of relief, “fresh air,” or new possibility that have come in the session. Take plenty of time to savor whatever comes.
I can’t overemphasize how important it is for HSPs to “take in the good” in this proactive way. Because of our negativity bias, we tend to overlook positive feelings. When that mix of virus-related dread expands in my stomach, it completely takes over my attention.
But if I remember to go through Rick Hanson’s four steps, I can dramatically shift my experience in the moment. I check in with my feet: yes, they feel good. My hands? Also good. My legs, my arms, my back…all good. In fact, the only part of me that doesn’t feel good is my stomach, and now I can hold that fear in a container of well-being.
I always feel surprised by this shift from overwhelming pain to well-being with pain mixed in. And my clients are surprised, too, when they experience it. As our session ends, I’ll invite them to sense any relief or “fresh air” that has come, and they’ll say, “Oh! Yes, I feel a lot lighter.” It’s as if the lightness had been there, but they simply hadn’t noticed it until I asked.
Going deeper to erase negative experiences altogether
Hanson describes his Step 4, “Link positive and negative material,” as “optional.” But I think Step 4 is essential for HSPs—because only in Step 4 can you permanently erase negative conditioning. Many of us have negative conditioning that causes us needless stress. So let’s look at this step more closely.
In Hanson’s Step 4, you hold a positive experience and a negative experience at the same time, letting the positive experience be “in front” or more intense. Because you are holding both experiences, you once again access the power of the well-known neurobiological principle, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means the positive experience gradually overwrites and replaces the negative one.
To facilitate this change, you have to take time to thoroughly experience, enrich, and absorb a positive feeling while also allowing a painful feeling to be present. Note that the purpose is not to push away or get rid of your negative feelings. On the contrary: only by holding the negative and the positive simultaneously can you help your neurons rewire.
I’ll never forget the first time I had this experience of feeling both spaciousness and peace and intense emotional pain. The pain was terrible, but I felt it within the container of peace, and that made all the difference. I had no idea then that I was rewiring my neural circuitry: I just knew I felt profound relief around an issue that was as painful as anything I had ever felt.
Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin call this ability to hold two things at once “the power of and.” Even if you are not yet familiar with Focusing, you can access this “power of and” with a simple language change. Instead of saying, “I’m really excited about going on this trip, but something in me is scared,” try saying, “I’m really excited about going on this trip, and something in me is scared.” With that tiny change from “but” to “and,” you create a new world in which you can have both experiences at the same time.
Thanks to Rick Hanson for helping us more fully understand and appreciate this highly pertinent topic of negativity bias. We can argue whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the forest and no one hears it, but there’s no argument about the fate of our positive experiences if we don’t notice, enrich, and absorb them. They fade away and are lost.
But if we ground our awareness of positive experiences in the ways Hanson suggests, we can gradually overcome our inherent negativity bias. At a time when we are confronted with a truly scary virus, cultivating these neuropsychological skills and awareness can make all the difference to our daily peace of mind.