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5 Ways That Negativity Affects Brain Chemistry, and What to Do

Our thoughts have a profound impact on our brain chemistry and basic physiology. Our bodies are programmed to respond in certain ways to different situations. Based on your appraisal of, or thought about, a given situation, your brain will have a specific chemical reaction which communicates to your body how to respond. For example, when you are faced with danger, your thought process might be “there is danger and now I need to run,” but more likely than not, the process happens more instantaneously because you have a thought about danger and your brain then takes over. Here are some specific ways that negativity can affect your brain and body:

  1. Negative thinking can lead to decreased cognitive functioning. When you have emotionally charged thoughts, most often negative ones, your limbic system (the reptilian brain – the part that is not as evolved) takes over and your prefrontal cortex which is used for cognitive functioning and organization has energy diverted away from it. As a result, you cannot think as clearly. This is why one of the most effective coping skills when you are feeling emotionally overwhelmed is to engage in a cognitively challenging task like a word or number game or puzzle and this will divert resources back to the prefrontal cortex.
  2. Negativity can also lead to immune system suppression. Since your brain and body are constantly on high alert, all systems get overused and an excessive amount of energy is utilized that otherwise would go toward maintaining your normally strong immune system. It has been long established that individuals under chronic stress have weaker immune systems and this is one of the reasons why.
  3. Negative thinking can also cause extreme physical symptoms of anxiety. When you have a thought that conveys a message of impending danger to your brain, your brain signals your body to prepare to escape or fight, and this causes your heart to race, your breathing to quicken, and signals other panic symptoms.
  4. Recurrent negative thinking can also cause rewiring of associations or certain associations to fast-track to negative emotions. For example, if you consistently come to expect something negative in a given situation or from a certain person then that cue (situation or person) will cause an immediate negative response.
  5. Anger and hostility in particular can lead to a higher risk of stroke, according to a 2014 study by Everson et al. that was published in the journal Stroke. The authors explain that the way in which this happens is that negative emotions activate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, your body’s built in stress response system. The changes in neurological and endocrine systems lead to risk factors of stroke. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/STROKEAHA.114.004815

It is important to know that “thought suppression” or trying to push away a thought is not helpful. It actually can intensify the thoughts. It is important to foster a better, more accepting way to relate to your thoughts. Practice acknowledging your thoughts (“there’s that thought again”), simply labeling them (“I am having the thought that…”, choosing not to engage with them (“this is not helpful for me to think about right now”), challenge them (“what is the evidence for and against this?”) and explore mindfulness techniques. In contrast to negativity, which more often than not, prompts a physical stress/danger response, meditation and mindfulness which teach your mind and body to quiet themselves are associated with a slew of positive health benefits. Certain newer types of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can offer more on this style of learning to relate to your thoughts differently. CBT will help you learn how to challenge your thoughts and come up with more effective ways of thinking. The therapists at PVD Psych have training in all of these types of therapy and can help you figure out what might work best for you.