Diabetes is a hardship – no doubt about that. But can your genes and your mind make it seem worse than it really is? The answer is YES, and it has to do with something called the “Negativity Bias”. The Negativity Bias is a hardwired phenomenon in your brain that makes you remember bad/dangerous/painful things more than your pleasant experiences. And if you aren’t aware that this is happening, it will make your diabetes management much harder. Let’s take a look and see why.
Negativity Bias Defined
Rick Hanson, Ph.D is a psychologist at UC Berkeley who specializes in how our brains work. Personally, I follow him and enjoy his podcasts. He states that the negative experiences we have stick to us like Velcro while positive experiences slide off like Teflon. We hold on to the bad stuff. A simple definition on Wikipedia states “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things”. There is ample research that we all have a negativity bias, but what does it really mean?
Unpacking the Definition
If we investigate each piece of the definition it begins to make sense and we can see why negativity sticks to us like Velcro. First, “even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature have a greater effect”. Negative events tip the scales unfairly and seem worse than they are. We are hard-wired from a survival standpoint, to remember and pay attention to the plants that will kill you, the beasts that can harm you, and other potential threats.
Potential predator? You want to remember him next time and your brain “hangs on” to that information very tightly. Meanwhile it pays very little attention to the majority of your day where you ate a nourishing meal, were protected from the weather, and felt connected to your community. The random bad stuff takes front stage while the good and more prevalent stuff fades to the background.
As if inflating our bad experiences wasn’t enough, there is more! The negativity bias creates a “greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things”. So a small negative event will seem bigger and affect you more. It can dampen your mood, create more worry, cause greater fear, and in general cloud your view of the world! Literally the negativity bias means you are programmed by nature to see things are worse than they really are. It’s like you are looking through a dirty window.
That’s a blessing and a curse. It has kept us alive over the millenia, but also paints a pretty bleak picture of your reality.
Your view of YOUR Diabetes
As we have noted, the negativity bias is a real phenomenon and it ABSOLUTELY impacts your diabetes if you don’t know it is happening. Consider these statements: “Nothing I do makes any difference”, “I will never be able to figure this out”, “My blood sugars are always bad”, “My doctor only points out my bad blood sugars”, “No one understands”, “I totally blew it this week”, “My sugars are always bad”. Sound familiar?
The negativity bias makes our ability to manage our diabetes seem worse than it actually is. If unchecked these feelings of despair, frustration, and overwhelm can leave to “give up”. You know, where it seems like the effort isn’t paying off, so why bother.? (Doctor’s call this non-compliance, but it has nothing to do with complying.)
We all have these moments, but it is likely the negativity bias as work if you see words like “nothing”, “never”, “always”, “only”, No one”, “totally”, etc. All these words express absolutes and there are very few absolutes in life. Life tends to ebb and flow, peak and valley, and constantly change. When you use absolutes, you are making one piece of the pie bigger than it is. Heck, absolutes make it the whole pie! You are also limiting possibility. You may not have possibility in all things, but you can always (and I used that word on purpose), find possibility in our thoughts.
One of the few places you do have some absolutes is in our thought world. You 100% can choose what you want to focus on – or not. No one but you, chooses what goes on in your head and you can literally clean your “dirty window”! And sure, it takes some effort, but the payoffs are pretty amazing!
Keep Negativity in Perspective
White it’s true you don’t have choice in many aspects of diabetes, you always have the opportunity to change your perspective. Luckily, it’s free, comes in unlimited supply and you don’t have to tell a single sole about it – unless you want to. Purposefully changing your perspective is the best way to combat your negativity bias and bring some balance and positivity into your life. And who doesn’t want more free, good stuff???? Here are some practical things you can do to self-check the negativity.
- Pay attention to your self-talk: We all have a voice in our head commenting on our life. Notice what yours is telling you. Reflect on your day and listen to what YOU are saying to YOU!
- Challenge the absolutes: If your self-talk contains a lot of absolutes (never, always, only, etc.), challenge yourself to see if they are TRUE. Perhaps the negativity bias is making you forget the good stuff? Spend 10 minutes where you won’t be disturbed and just “notice” what you are thinking about. Where does your brain want to take you?
- Acknowledge the “voice in your head“: That voice in your head that is always talking and criticizing has a purpose. Just like your negativity bias, it is there to keep you safe and point out all the pitfalls. When the voice is making mountains out of molehills, try talking back to it. “I know you are pointing out all the potential problems and thank you for your endless work, BUT you are making it worse, and it isn’t true. I hear you and understand your concern, but I GOT THIS”.
- Sprinkle positivity in frequently and often: if unchecked, negativity is going to push out the good stuff, you must be intentional about focusing on the good stuff. Lots of ways to do this. See if any of these feel right to you and then DO IT!
- Develop a mantra to drown out the negative: “I am OK. I have choices. All is well”, or any other simple phrase. Scriptures and quotes can be good sources.
- Surround yourself with Inspiration: Sticky notes work – having visual reminders of the good stuff brings it to the forefront of your mind every time you see it.
- Create a list of the positives: Reflect on what went well, what worked, or the times you made a choice you liked. Putting it on paper gives it more weight and influence. Just the act of moving it from a nebulous idea to a real, physical thing you can see tilts the scales back in your favor.
Diabetes is hard. No doubt about it. You need all the motivation, energy and support you can muster to face it each day. Now that you know the negativity bias exists, you can’t help but notice when it happens. Just by reading this article, you have a made a shift in your world. You can never “unknow” this fact. Use it to create your better diabetes life.
Have fun catching yourself in the act, slaying the Negativity Bias. and rocking your diabetes world.
Be well my diabuddies,