Though there is much to be said for having a positive outlook on life, negative emotions are an undeniable aspect of being human. As a matter of fact, according to psychologists, such as Jonathan Adler, our experience and processing of negative emotions is an essential aspect of a healthy mind. When we try to suppress or deny negative emotions, they will manifest unconsciously as uncontrolled outbursts, or physically, as disease, illness, and pain. Negativity is more than just a state of mind; it is also a physiological and physical state which can have detrimental effects on your well-being. So, while negative emotions in and of themselves are not bad for your health, prolonged states of negativity are very bad for your health.
NAS is a state of psychological difficulty, suffering characterized by the preponderance of negative moods and emotions that impair adaptive functioning and well-being. These negative moods and emotions include anger, fear, disgust, guilt, and contempt. The opposite of negative affectivity is positive affectivity and is associated with feelings of composure, calm, and serenity, something which we will explore later. Research has shown that individuals with high negative affect show higher levels of stress and anxiety and tend to focus on that which is unpleasant in the world, in others and in themselves. It is the relationship between negative emotions and stress that is the important factor to consider here.
The Stress Response
While we tend to use the word stress quite lightly in daily conversation, most people have no idea of the damage that stress does to the body. That damage is anything but light – in fact, that damage can be deadly. Biological stress is an instinctual reaction to stimuli, also called stressors, in the environment. Whenever a threat is perceived, our body’s stress response takes over, something which initiates psychological, physiological (chemical), and physical reactions in the body, reactions over which we have no control. In an effort to prepare to fight or flight, our muscles tense, our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar soar, our immune and digestive systems are repressed, and our muscles tense up. All of these reactions help us fight or run for our lives in the face of a real enemy. The reaction is supposed to be a response to a temporary state of events, however these days, people live in a constant state of stress in reaction to simple daily life events, like driving to work. No organism is cut out to handle constant states of stress.
If you haven’t already made the connection between today’s leading killer diseases and what was just said, let’s spell it out now. “Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – including heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure – is the number 1 killer in men and women in the United States” – not to mention CVD costs the US (i.e. taxpayers) over $300 billion each year – and most of it is stress-induced.
A negative attitude is like a bad habit. It might be difficult to break, but it can certainly be done. Before we look at how to undo negative thinking, let’s take a look at how negativity sets-in in the first place.
The Habit of Negativity – Neuroplasticity
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of our nervous system to adapt to and modify itself based on what we do most often. Think about learning any new skill, like playing an instrument for example. At first you are a bit shaky, but over time, you get better and better at it until it becomes second nature. Well, our thoughts work on that same neural system. The more we think certain thoughts or have certain emotional responses, the more inclined we are to think those thoughts and respond with those emotions, until finally, all of it becomes engrained in our personalities. Once this happens, these negative personality traits are combined with the negative effects of the stress response – and that is simply not a good recipe for a healthy lifestyle.
Our neural system’s neuroplasticity is the secret to changing negativity, and if you are dedicated to changing yourself, you can do it in as little as 21 days. While this may sound like an infomercial, it’s not because this cure does not cost you any money. That cure is meditation. Research has shown that after only 21 days of compassion meditation, grey matter in the brain was increased in all areas associated with higher functioning, such as empathy and compassion, perspective-taking, learning, and memory to name only a few. In addition, after those 21 days the area of the brain associated with stress – the amygdala – had decreased in grey matter! This means that in addition to the effects of lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar, were the effects of lowered stress levels and anger responses. One of the most encouraging of those results was this: the meditators in the study reported that none of the stressors in life had changed. All of the same stressors were still there. It was only their response to stress that had changed. It is only when we can change our response to stress and negative emotions that we can free ourselves from both.