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How To Stop Worries And Anxieties From Messing With Your Head

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how to stop worrying negativity bias

Our "negative bias" might save our lives, or it might just torture us.

Anxiety is normal. In fact, one of the things that makes us anxious is an in-born negativity bias that we all have. I’m talking about the specific kind of anxiety we know as worry.

Have you ever tried to talk someone out of worrying? (Has anyone tried to talk YOU out of worrying?) Reasoning doesn’t cut it. As a matter of fact, reasoning often makes things worse — now, not only are you worried, but you’re unreasonable, as well! 

You — or your worried friend — are in the grip of your innate "negativity bias." Negative information "weighs more heavily on the brain," according to a 2016 study. We literally pay more attention to unpleasant experiences than to pleasant ones.

That's what makes learning how to stop worrying especially difficult.


RELATED: Why Trying To Overcome Your Anxiety Only Makes It Worse


What do you worry about?

A lot of people, lately, say they worry about what’s going on in the world. And look! Every day there is news of some horrific violence or something politically shocking. In themselves, the facts are scary. But beyond the simple facts, there’s something about bad news — frightening news — that draws our attention and in some way excites us. (Think of traffic slow-downs when the terrible accident is on the other side of the road!) It supports a deep-down awareness of the world as a terrifying place.

In other words, it supports our negativity bias.

It makes sense, historically. When our ancestors lived in small groups in the wild, they were constantly surrounded by physical dangers. An assumption that something unknown could kill you was literally a life-saver. Like most of our troubling reactions, it was once truly valuable. So it’s not surprising when a study finds that even three-month-olds will react to someone who seems "iffy."

Although we’re no longer living in constant danger, it’s important to pay attention to the alarm signals our bodies give us

But a great deal of the worry we experience has less to do with actual danger, and more to do with imagined catastrophe.

You could be mugged on the street, but having a sleepless night worrying about it will not protect you, nor will it prepare you. Or the plane could crash, but sitting rigidly in your seat with your hands clasped tight won’t keep it in the air. Just like worrying that your out-after-curfew kid will get in a terrible accident won’t bring him home safely.

There are many people who actively believe that predicting disaster "prepares" them for it. "I knew it!" is small comfort if, in fact, it comes to pass.


RELATED: 19 Quotes For When Anxiety Feels Completely Overwhelming


It’s important to acknowledge that these fears are very real to the people who suffer from them. Their bodies react the same as if the terrible thing were happening right now. And the negativity bias supports them.

When we’re faced with the unknown, our bodies react — often with fear.

But it’s what we do next that matters. If you don’t want to be at the mercy of your instinctive fears, stop, slow yourself down, and become curious. Is this unfamiliar thing bad for you? Or good? Or a mixed bag? It might be something amazing! But you'll never know if you give in to your negativity bias. And there wouldn’t be much point to all to this exposition if there weren’t some sort of hope to make it better.

Once you recognize your natural inclination toward seeing everything unfamiliar as a danger, you can start to notice when it happens. You can remind yourself, during that wakeful night, that thousands upon thousands of people will be walking with you on the street, unmolested, and you could imagine that for yourself as well.

In that seat on the plane, you could remind yourself that you are more likely to be attacked by a bear than die in a plane crash. And, for your own peace of mind, when your kid is out past curfew, you could imagine him enjoying his friends, having lost track of time. You could.

Of course, it’s hard to learn to react to the unknown with interest and with a hopeful attitude. The negativity bias makes it hard to keep in mind that much of life is really quite good.

What I recommend is to build up a kind of "pleasure savings account." Since it’s so much easier to remember pain than pleasure, it’s important to consciously notice and remember the joys of everyday life. The more you practice noticing what gives you good feelings, the stronger your ability to remain balanced in the face of the unknown.

When paying attention to the positive become a habit, you’ll have something to draw on when the negativity bias is nipping at your heels.


RELATED: 8 Reasons Anxiety Actually Makes Life BETTER


Want to learn more? Cheryl Gerson is a licensed clinical social worker and board-certified diplomate, specializing in treatment for anxiety. She has been in private practice in New York City for over 25 years. Call her for an in-depth conversation about the right treatment for you.

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