STRESSGeneralNegative Bias and Gratitude 

Negative Bias and Gratitude 

By: Kevin Hurl

As a species, our brains have kept us safe from predators, rival tribes, dangerous situations, and the environment for generations through our sympathetic nervous system and the fight, flight or freeze response. We are attuned at a very primal level to sensing danger and being ever watchful for it. We are even able to deal with very stressful situations, process these, move from fight, flight and freeze and then regulate, through homeostasis back to our rest and digest state.  But something happened to us along the way. 

The psychologist Alberto Villoldo tells us we have evolved to deal with one lion roaring at us at a time, the problem is we now have a multitude of microstressors constantly triggering us and it has gone from one lion roaring at us to the whole jungle screaming at us in the form of emails, messages, alarms, call outs, deadlines and life commitments. Our body’s defense mechanisms and brains are still at a primal level, living in the cave and treating these as threats. 

Stemming from this we are predisposed to focus and dwell on the negative and let the positive pass us by as it has no life-saving function, but focusing on danger and risk is what has kept us alive. So we are now in a position where we will allow ourselves to wallow and fester in the negativity without considering ways to allow us to cultivate a more positive mindset. This is our negative bias and to put some figures to it, several studies show how many thoughts we have per day. These figures range from 6,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day depending on the study but what is clear is that approx. 95% of our thoughts are repetitive and approx. 80% are negative.

We are living in and creating our negative feedback loop.

Now consider the high-stress environment of first responders and firefighters, this constant negative bias can trigger our stress response, lead to burnout, and fatigue, and impact our overall mental health and wellbeing.  

So what can we do? 

One of the first ports of call with any issue is awareness and admitting that yes we have a negative bias. Then we can start catching ourselves in these moments of rumination and negativity and look at spiraling upward instead of down. 

When I talk with firefighters on this, convincing them of the effectiveness of these tools is usually very tough, just like the audience. Once I get them past the notion that not all mental well-being practices are candles and sandal-based, we can begin to make some progress.

Here are two of my top tips:
  1. Gratitude. People with a gratitude routine have been found to sleep better, gaining an extra 30 minutes per night over those who don’t practice. They stress less, have lower levels of anxiety, and are quantifiably happier – 25% to be exact. This is based on studies carried out on several groups with one group being asked to write down in a journal at the end of each week for ten weeks, five things they are grateful for. Some experts claim a journal is the way to go, but this can be difficult for firefighters, especially when on shift. For me personally, I place my open hand on my chest each night when I am in bed and mentally run through five things, I am grateful for and count them off on my fingers. 
  2. Thought profiling. Let’s look at our brain as a nightclub, or a garden if you prefer. Outside the nightclub is a queue of patrons waiting to get in. Some of those patrons have negative thoughts and don’t belong inside our club. They will just cause trouble and bring everyone else down. We need to employ some security and have your brains doorman escort them off the premises. Don’t dwell on negative thoughts and don’t spend any more time on them than you have to. Taking it to the next step, as this doorman of your brain is doing his rounds he spots a positive thought, he then takes that thought straight to the VIP area and gives it some champagne and spends some time with it. Rule: don’t let it slip past missing an opportunity to recognize these positive moments and experiences. 

I once ran an online workshop and went over this practice as I do, and a few weeks later I had a young woman contact me to say she no longer suffered from insomnia due to her new gratitude routine. If you think about it, most of us are getting into bed in the sympathetic fight or flight side of our nervous system. We are wondering why we are having trouble sleeping as we dwell on perhaps a single negative experience from that day or rumination from other negatives. By giving our brain space to move into the more relaxed parasympathetic side of our nervous system, while thinking of five good things in our day, we can drift off more easily.

If we start to change what we focus on, our focus will start to change too. If the garden analogy is more you, then a negative thought is a weed in your mind garden and needs to be plucked and discarded before it can take over the whole place. A positive thought, well that’s a flower or a vegetable and we want to cultivate that, water it and look after it. 

Unless we make the conscious decision to start looking for the positive, our defense mechanisms will keep us focused on the negative.

Want to be 25 % happier? Develop a gratitude practice. Want to sleep more? Yup, gratitude. Want to exercise more? Yeah, you already know, gratitude. 

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