Is negative thinking bad for your brain?

By Terry Small
Nov 7, 2018
Photo credit: BrianAJackson/iStock/Getty Images

Listen to our podcast episode with this article's author, Terry Small, and Leah Giesbrecht, communications specialist, CPABC. Part of our Coffee Chats with CPABC podcast series.

When was the last time you thought about your thinking?

How much of your thinking is positive? Negative?  

That 'well-known neurologist' Willie Nelson said, "Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you'll start having positive results." It turns out that this is true where your brain health is concerned.

Is negative thinking bad for your brain?

Scientists seem to think that it is. Researchers at King's College London found that repetitive negative thinking may increase your risk for Alzheimer's disease. Remember, at this time there is no cure for Alzheimer's, so this deserves your attention. 

The study found that a habit of prolonged negative thinking diminishes your brain's ability to think, reason, and form memories. Essentially draining your brain's resources.

Another study reported in the journal American Academy of Neurology found that cynical thinking also produces a greater dementia risk.

When you change your thinking, your life changes 

Remember, brains get good at what they do. Negative thoughts create 'channels' in your brain. This way of thinking can become your default. If you do a lot of negative thinking, you wire your brain to be good at producing negative thoughts. Your brain also gets good at seeing things to think negatively about.

One of the many byproducts of negative thinking is stress, which then leads to more negative thinking.  

Here's a suggestion: When negative thoughts come, and they will, don't just ignore them. Instead:

Pay attention. Stop what you are doing. Close your eyes if you need to. 

Replace the negative thought with a positive thought. 

Hold the positive thought in your brain for a full minute, or more. 

When you do this, neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections – starts to work in your favour. 

The two keys are attention density – the amount of attention paid to a particular mental experience over a specific time – and holding the thought long enough for your brain to begin to create new 'channels.'

You become a sculptor of your own brain. How cool is that? 

Changing your habits of mind can change your life.  

A good book to read on self-directed neuroplasticity is You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffrey Schwartz.

A sure-fire stress buster 

One more suggestion:

Go for a whole week without complaining. Not even once. Log it. If you relapse, start your week over. Back to day one. Go for a week without complaining...and watch the people around you change. 

Such is the power of mirror neurons. These neurons fire when we act in a certain way and also when we observe the same action being performed by someone else. Your behaviour – positive or negative – can influence how others behave.  

Sales guru Tom Hopkins once said, “Being miserable is a habit; being happy is a habit; and the choice is yours.” There is some truth to this.

Terry Small, B.Ed., M.A., is a master teacher and Canada's leading learning skills specialist. He is the author of the Brain Bulletin with over 34,000 subscribers worldwide.