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Fighting the “negativity bias”

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Learn how your brain focuses on the negative, how that can impact your well-being, and how to balance out your perception.

The human brain has evolved to be adept at identifying threats and challenges, which enables you to navigate through a dangerous world successfully. This ability helps keep Warfighters, family members, and teammates vigilant and safe from harm. But it also can skew your perception of life toward the negative. Read on to learn how to keep your mind in balance.

This hardwired tendency, called “negativity bias,” causes your brain to prioritize, seek out, and lock on to negative information out in the world like a heat-seeking missile. You’re likely to process negative events more fully than positive ones. Negative emotions seem to hang around a lot longer than positive emotions. And when you get home at the end of the day, you’re more likely to mull over the one negative comment someone made about your work and ignore the many positive comments you received from others. It’s just the way your brain works.

Negativity bias is adaptive and helpful in many ways, but the key to maintaining good mental health is in finding balance. So what can you do? Here are a few strategies to try:

  • Spend a few minutes each day looking for the good around you. Write down the positive things you notice and reflect or share with other people.
  • Check your interpretations. If you notice you tend to interpret the world in negative ways, ask yourself if you’re seeing things accurately and if you can be more flexible in your thinking.
  • Be intentional about appreciating the ordinary. Good things don’t have to be big things. When you can learn to be grateful for and appreciate the little things, you can balance out the impact of your negativity bias.

The bad stuff will find you, but work each day at fighting the negativity bias by searching for the good.

Mental flexibility beats forced positivity

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Feeling anxious or down? Find out how awareness and mental flexibility is more important than thinking other, specific thoughts.

Forcing yourself to “just think positively,” especially if you’re feeling sad or anxious, typically doesn’t work. New perspectives can be wonderful, but they can’t be forced. Typically, it isn’t specific thoughts that can make you feel better; it’s the flexibility to recognize that there’s more than one way to look at a situation.

Remember: Thinking about something doesn’t always make it true. For instance, you might believe, “My NCO thinks I’m incompetent.” Instead, you might take comfort in thinking, “My NCO pushes hard, but he knows I’m good at what I do”—if you really believe it. Still, it could lead to an internal debate: “He thinks I stink. No, he knows I’m good. He thinks I’m a loser,” and so on. But recognizing there are many ways to interpret your NCO’s behavior can be helpful, as you simply move forward and do what’s needed.

You’re not burying your feelings and you aren’t fighting them: You’re using this mindfulness and acceptance-based approach to become aware of thoughts and feelings, let them fade into the background, and focus on what’s important. It’s tempting to fight negative emotions, but the fight itself often makes things worse. Picture someone saying, “Don’t be anxious/sad/mad/frustrated,” and you’ll likely feel the emotion that much more strongly as you either try to push it away or cling to it. Be present: Tune into your feelings and face what’s happening. Let the experience come and watch it go.

Mindfulness in daily life might seem simple, but it’s not. Practice the skill and enjoy slowly becoming better at it!

Mindfulness help for service members

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Learn about some of the benefits of learning mindfulness meditation and becoming more mindful.

Mindfulness meditation can help service members learn to focus on the present, heal from injury, and/or improve their performance. It’s a popular technique in which you clear your mind of clutter and simply notice thoughts, sensations, emotions, or distractions by focusing attention on a specific target such as breathing. During this process, you consistently (and gently) guide your attention back to a present moment and focus on your target, with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment. This attitude extends into treating yourself with compassion, rather than judgment. “Mindfulness meditation” and “mindfulness” are often used interchangeably, but mindfulness meditation refers to a technique, whereas mindfulness refers to any process of bringing mindful awareness into daily life. Practicing mindfulness meditation regularly can help you become more mindful in general. Read more...

Ways to quiet your mind

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Figure out your preferred approach to quieting your mind so that you’re ready to take on the next challenge!

You might have noticed that you can “turn off” your busy brain by watching TV, but did you know there are other techniques that could help quiet your mind? You can download several MP3 audio files in HPRC’s Mind-Body Apps, Tools, and Videos.

Remember it's okay if your busy brain turns on. But just as easily as racing thoughts creep in, let them creep out—while gently guiding your attention to something neutral such as your breath, or something important such as the task at hand. Whether it’s watching TV or using a mind-body technique, find ways to quiet your mind and be more focused when it matters.

Improving mood with food

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Mindful eating can help you make better decisions and transform your whole eating experience!

“You are what you eat” means that food affects your physical AND emotional health! A tip that also helps your mood is to stay away from “comfort foods.” Choose foods that give you more steady energy, such as an orange or raisins (not ice cream or fries). This might be old advice, but here’s a new twist: Eat that snack mindfully!

By practicing mindfulness before you eat, when you’re feeling a craving, and while you eat, you can overcome binge eating, eating to soothe emotional concerns, and impulses triggered by yummy sights, sounds, or smells. It helps you understand your motivation. Are you eating because you’re hungry and it’s time to eat? Or is it a “quick fix” for your stress or worries?

Once you’re eating, instead of analyzing why you’re eating or focusing on other tasks such as texting, be mindful of the eating experience, embracing the experiences of smell, taste, temperature, and texture. You may find yourself slowing down and enjoying your food more!

Before diving into your next snack or meal, think about what you’re eating and be mindful of why. Here’s a simple example of how you can weave mindful eating into your daily life: You might notice that it’s 3pm, and you’ve had nothing to eat since that healthy lunch, and you need a pick-me-up, so you reach for an orange. Now, mindfully enjoy each part of the experience as you peel the orange, noticing the textures inside and outside, the stickiness, the spray, and the smell. Notice how you salivate with the anticipation of citrus acids, and the moment when the piece of orange hits your tongue, followed by squirts of flavor, and changing texture. Enjoy!

Cope with emotions through mindfulness

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Mindfulness can help you to face hard emotions instead of running from them. Learn how.

Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune in to emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. It’s easy to be overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems. And you can make it worse by trying to forget the cause. For example, a service member afflicted with PTSD desperately wants to avoid experiencing certain traumatic events. Ironically, the actual effort to forget can cause him to relive difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or memories. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more. Read more here

Learn how to stretch mindfully

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Learn how to do stretches in a mindful way using yoga poses to get the benefits of both stretching and mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t something you have to do sitting still. You can apply mindfulness to activities such as stretching. A great way to do this is by using yoga poses. When stretching in a mindful way, you bring your attention to your breath as you stretch your muscles.

Mindful stretching can help you in a number of ways:

  • To focus your attention before or after a workout
  • To focus on and relax knotted areas within your muscles
  • To provide closure to something you’re working on (such as the transition from work to weekend)
  • As a routine before you go to bed to prime your body for sleep

In mindful stretching, the focus is not on doing repetitions or certain times, but rather going with what your body needs in the moment. To learn how, see HPRC’s “Mindful Stretching Exercises Using Yoga Poses” for a step-by-step guide with pictures. 

Stressed out? It isn’t all in your head.

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The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful. Learn more about how this two-way interaction can work for and against you.

Stress affects your body, and the condition of your body can cause stress. If you have PTSD, you could be so chronically stressed that it contributes to a heart condition. Or if you had a heart attack, you could feel so traumatized that you become anxious. What’s more, stress could have contributed to your heart attack in the first place. This back-and-forth relationship also occurs between physical pain and depression. You physically hurt, so you feel down…you feel down, and so you hurt more.

This link between mind and body is amazing. Sometimes it can feel like it’s working against us, but you can also use the mind-body connection to your advantage! For instance, you can learn to push through strong emotions with mindfulness, reduce your blood pressure with a self-driven technique called autogenic training, or turn on your body’s relaxation response through deep breathing.

There are lots more ways you can put the mind-body connection to work to reduce your stress. Get more ideas by exploring HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section.

Is perfectionism the perfect way to train?

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Are you a perfectionist? Learn why striving for excellence is a better move than demanding perfection.

Perfectionists are driven to do well. And if you’re one yourself, you may have found that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Perfectionism is a problem when you can’t accept your mistakes, and you either miss chances to fix things or miss other more important opportunities. But being a perfectionist isn’t entirely bad, if accepting mistakes as you aim high is part of what you do.

Taking a test can be a “perfect” example of how to accept that you’ll occasionally make mistakes while still striving for excellence. Let’s say you scored 99% on a test. If your inner critic gets caught up in the 1% you missed, you might lose sight of where you need improvement. Try acknowledging the mistake, trust you’ve learned from it, and focus on what is most important as you move forward.

Don’t let your critical, perfectionist inner voice cause you to lose focus on what you need to succeed. It’s easy to get stuck on what you can’t control, such as the past or thoughts of the future. Perfectionism is a problem when it affects everything you do and becomes core to who you are. If your self-worth is caught up so much in being perfect, failures can feel catastrophic. If everything you do feels like a reflection of your character, the stakes are high!

Remember: Let your actions be what you do, not who you are. Don’t take failures personally; instead, trust them as learning opportunities for how to approach future events.

Healthy perfectionism is striving for your best performance by doing everything in your power to make it happen. Have high standards, accept imperfections, and enjoy (realistically) better performances.

Mindfulness meditation: a primer

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Mindfulness meditation is a take-anywhere tool that can impact your mind, body, and performance. Learn what it is and how to do it.

Mindfulness meditation is a mind-body practice that focuses on awareness and acceptance of the present moment. It’s a great tool to sharpen your concentration, deal with tough emotions such as anxiety and stress, and even give you physical benefits such as lowered blood pressure. Not sure how to do it? HPRC’s “A mindfulness meditation primer” describes what mindfulness meditation is and how to go about it, with an mp3 audio that takes you through five minutes of guided practice to get you started. 

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