Adapted from a previously published article.
One valuable, often overlooked, and durable way to manage stress and recurring anxiety is to build positive habits of thinking, slowly and over time.
Habit and the Brain
Colloquially speaking, our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative. The human brain evolved with a “negativity bias,” says mindfulness expert Metta McGarvey, which gives negative events and thoughts a proportionally greater impact on our memory and psychological state than positive ones. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense — strong recollection of bad experiences means we’re more likely to learn from mistakes and avoid a life-threatening situation.
But this negativity bias also means that smaller, day-to-day stressors tend to take precedence in our thoughts, leaving less room for positive framing or constructive action planning.
Happily, our brains can change as we learn; we can teach ourselves to accentuate positive experiences and maintain serenity, says McGarvey. In a process called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” neural connections can grow based on what we’re learning. Repeating the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increases synaptic connectivity, strengthens neural networks, and creates new neurons through learning. In other words, practicing a positive habit can predispose our thoughts to be more affirmative. See brain training exercises below the video.