A Pattern of Pessimism, and How To Break It

Feb 2, 2016 | Stress

Feeling like Debbie Downer

Do you tend to think about what has gone wrong, or what could go wrong, rather than what’s gone or might go right? Do you sometimes feel like “Debbie Downer”?

I can relate. I’m so much better now, but in high school I was voted “class pessimist.” So when my clients talk about all that has gone wrong, or all that is likely to go wrong, I get it.

When you’re feeling pessimistic, it’s difficult to turn it around. Telling someone stuck in negative thinking to just think positively can be a bit like telling a person who is really upset to calm down.

The role of stress

Maybe you’re not simply a pessimist, or out to rain on everyone’s parade. Maybe you’re stressed.

I was recently listening to an interview with scientist and writer Jo Marchand on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. She gave an explanation of stress and the mind-body connection that helped me see it in a new way.

First, when we are dealing with stress over long periods of time, our brains get wired for that stress. Marchand likens it to a violinist whose brain becomes wired to play the violin after practicing eight hours a day.

As the parts of the brain responsible for dealing with stress are activated more, they get larger, while other parts of the brain not being used get smaller.

And here’s what clicked for me: as Marchand puts it, when we become wired for stress in this way, our brains tend to look for reasons to explain that stress. This translates into negative thinking such as worry and doubt.

The negative path

When you’ve been stuck in a pattern of stress and negative thinking, you’re unlikely to change that overnight. You can wake up tomorrow and tell yourself that you’re not going to be stressed or will think positively from now on, but that is probably not going to happen simply by deciding it.

Neuroscience has shown that in choosing between a well-worn path over a new one, we are most likely to return to the well-worn path where the neural pathway is easy and even automatic. In this way, we easily return to negative thoughts associated with stress.

The mind-body connection

Stress makes us feel on edge, sensitive to attack, anxious or worried. The mind races, and it’s hard to slow down and relax. But it’s not just about the mind, it’s also about the physical body.

Stress gives rise to a fight-or-flight response which triggers certain physiological reactions. When we perceive a threat to our well-being, our bodies get ready to attack or escape the threat with tightened muscles, increased heart rate, and rapid and shallow breathing.

Relax the body, and the mind will follow

Changing negative thought patterns takes time, but there is a simple choice you can make that will have immediate effects on your mind, and will plant the seeds for less stress and more positive thoughts. You can create relaxation in the body by stretching or relaxing muscles, or even more simply, by deepening and slowing the breath.

By reversing the physical responses associated with stress, you send signals to your mind that you are not in a stressful situation, so it too can relax.

If you’ve ever had a great massage, or a good yoga session, you know how relaxed you can feel afterwards not just in the body but also in the mind. The thoughts slow down and burdens can feel lighter.

When I notice a client is particularly stressed, I might begin a coaching session with a brief meditation or focus on the breath. Inevitably, the client becomes more centered and better able to proceed with the coaching.

So the next time you’re noticing stress or negative thoughts, stop and focus on deepening and slowing the breath. Notice where the muscles are tight, such as your shoulders or jaw, and try to relax them. For longer-lasting results, commit to a regular practice that calms you, whether that be yoga, breath work, meditation, music, art or some other activity that resonates with you.

Your thoughts?

If you liked this post, please share it via one of the icons below. If you didn’t, maybe you are stressed… 😉

Feel free to join in the discussion using the comment box; or, if you think you could benefit from some support with stress or negative thought patterns, contact me.

Photo: Half what? by Kalya Chakravarthy on flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

1 Comment

  1. Jim

    Excellent writing and very helpful! Thank you!


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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