Why negative thoughts make you age faster and what to do about it
Is your biological age older than your chronological age? Probably not since you’re reading this article. Most likely your biological age, determined by physiological factors like a strong, fit body and psychological factors like a healthy mind and emotions, is lower than the number of times you’ve gone around the sun.
But others may be aging faster than the candles on their birthday cakes suggest, especially if they frequently entertain negative thoughts. That’s because stress is the number one aging factor.
I know a lot about stress. In fact, I could have been a poster woman for that condition, having suffered the depths of depression more than once. Even scarier, I began experiencing dreadful mental deterioration five years after my mother died of Alzheimer’s.
Then 12 years ago I got a ‘wake-up call’ and realized I could give myself over to decline and infirmity, accepting it as unavoidable – or I could do everything in my power to find an alternate route through later life. I chose the road less traveled and threw myself into the work of growing younger by exploring, studying and experimenting until I had developed a complete personal program of body/mind/spirit techniques. With daily practice my results were so extraordinary – literally age reversing – that three years later I felt compelled to share what I had discovered and I wrote my first book.
Today my mind is much clearer and sharper and my body is far stronger and more flexible than before I began my program in 2004. The stresses that life presents no longer knock me off my center and leave me reeling, vulnerable to depression – or worse. My program of practices also keeps the APO-e4 Alzheimer’s gene I inherited in the ‘off’ position. And keeps me happy – no matter what.
It wasn’t easy though. My mind seemed to want to stick with those negative thoughts that make us age faster. So I decided to find out why positive experiences seem to fade away quickly while negative ones keep us weighed down for hours – sometimes even for days and longer.
For the answer, let’s go back in time to the days of our caveman ancestors. Here we can find some clues as to why we need a process and practice to move our minds from the negative to the positive. And it’s this: neuroscientists have found an inherent draw to the negative to be a function of the most primitive parts of the human brain. As the primitive brain developed, people acutely aware of danger were more likely to stick around long enough to procreate.
The archipallium, which corresponds to the reptile brain, is responsible for both our self-preservation instincts and our aggression. Prior to modern times, self-preservation was the name of the game. Back then we needed a strong fear-response to be alert to real and immediate dangers, like the threat of being a lion’s lunch.
“Your brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it like Velcro® for negative experiences and Teflon® for positive ones,” says neuroscientist Rick Hanson. In his book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Hanson states, “Much as your body is built from the foods you eat, your mind is built from the experiences you have. The flow of experience gradually sculpts your brain, thus shaping your mind.”
Notice the next time you have a wonderful experience. See how it slips away quickly, as though it landed on a Teflon® wall. On the other hand, note when you experience something not-so-wonderful, maybe even horrifying. Rather than slipping away from the mind, it’s more likely, due to the design of our brain, to stick like Velcro® for days, weeks, years, decades. Our brain logs the experience as a source of threat, and works to preserve the self by being hyper-aware of other events that could get us crippled or killed. But in our time, we’re not usually fighting for our lives, protecting ourselves from wild animals and warring tribes. We’re getting pulled over for speeding, or we’re insulted by something someone said, or we’re just plain stressed out from life’s roller coaster ride.
You can do something about it! By building up your reservoir of positive experiences you can change, upgrade, evolve the function of your brain and in so doing, change your life. According to Dr. Hanson, one way to maximize the effect of positive experiences is by making each one last. Savor the experience by keeping your attention on it for up to half a minute, without allowing your mind to jump to something else. This can be as simple as enjoying the food you’re eating or holding gratitude in mind after a wonderful conversation.
I’m well aware of the Velcro®/Teflon® effect on my own life and here’s an example. At my talks I give the attendees an evaluation form for comments – pats and pans – to refine my presentation. I’m very grateful that the reviews are outstanding but every once in a while there’s one that’s not a rave review, like this one from Portland, Oregon: “It was great, a bit slow at times.”
Sure, you guessed it! That’s the one my mind clung to. What did he mean? When was it slow? Did he really mean it was great or did he just put that in to soften the blow?
Since observing my thoughts is a regular practice, I caught myself. Hey, wait a minute! Of the last thousand or so comments, you got ONE that’s negative. And only slightly negative, I told myself. Read the others and savor them. And so I did. But I have to admit that that one came into my mind for a few seconds from time to time for several days, whereas the others did not.
Yes, our primitive brain is still operating. The good news is that most of us don’t need to operate in survival mode – we just need to remind ourselves to ‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.’
Ellen Wood of Taos, New Mexico, is a regular contributor to the ARPF blog, inspirational speaker, columnist and award-winning author of “Think and Grow Young: Powerful Steps to Create a Life of Joy.” Her forthcoming book is “Stress Busters! 7 Happiness Habits That Transformed My Life.” Ellen’s website is www.ellenwoodspeaks.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org