01/28/2013 04:25 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

How Negativity Creates Fear

Our brains prefer predictability, certainty and control. When things are uncertain and you don't know what's going to happen next, the brain attempts to make up an ending. It writes its own narrative. There are two problems with this narrative. One, it's often not accurate. Two, the narrative is usually negative, and it's these negative thoughts that lead to catastrophic, worst-case scenarios and devastating thoughts.

This is the type of thinking I hear from my patients:

  • "She'll never like a guy like me."
  • "People will think I'm stupid and boring."
  • "The bridge is going to collapse."
  • "I'll never be a success."
  • "I'll never find someone."
  • "I'll be alone forever."
  • "The jet will crash."

There's a common theme to these statements. They are all negative predictions. This is known as "the negativity bias." We tend to notice and remember negative events and information rather than positive. For instance, most people remember more unhappy moments from their childhood than happy ones. In marriages, many people will also remember bad times -- horrendous fights, for example -- over good times. And most people can rattle off dozens of negative stories about work, but only a few that are positive.

To illustrate this, imagine the following scenario: You're walking down the street and on one corner you see a man mugging an old lady. On the other corner you see a man helping an old lady to cross the street. Which situation do you remember? Which one do you go home and tell your family about? Of course, the negative one.

The negativity bias not only affects what we remember from the past; it also affects how we see the future. Because of the negativity bias, we tend to predict doom, gloom, mayhem and failure. And this leads to fear, making us feel stuck. This negativity bias has been programmed into our wiring. Thousands of years ago outcomes generally were negative. Many babies died of illness. Most humans were met with untimely deaths. Wild animals were lurking around most corners.

It made sense to predict negative outcomes because they happened to be the most likely outcomes way back then. Thousands of years ago, early humans who panicked over a loud sound may have been early humans who lived to see another day. Their negativity bias led to survival.

In modern times, however, the negativity bias is a hindrance, one that reinforces our fear to the point where it becomes debilitating.

To learn ways to counter this negative thinking check out Be FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days. In it I provide a five step plan to help create certainty, confidence, and fearlessness.

For more by Jonathan Alpert, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

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