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The upside of anxiety

I am sure you heard that in a marriage, it takes seven good acts to balance out one bad one. You probably also experienced when your boss sits you down for a review, and you have four praises and one “opportunity for growth” you end up driving home beating your head against the steering wheel about your one imperfection.

I am also willing to bet that it is no news to you that newscasters love to report on violence and scandals, but we don’t often hear about the good stuff. Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard, wrote a phenomenal book “The Better Angels of our Nature – Why Violence has Declined” where he developed an argument and demonstrated it with substantial data from research how the World is getting more peaceful over the course of history. I watched an interview on television where the interviewer just about “ate him alive” everybody involved during the discussion was very determined to point out all the horrible things happening in the world right now and to prove Prof. Pinker wrong. Of course, the news anchor, succeed since 10 minutes attention spun violently is always more powerful than a 696 pg. long book, even though the book had more, and more correct information.

So why is it that we spin so many things in the news toward the negative? Even when the story is good; like Steven Pinker’s book on how the world is not doomed, we manage to make the interview about how he is wrong, and the world is doomed.

If you know psychology, you know the answer; Negativity Bias. That is the scientific name of the phenomena. The human brain is wired to scan for the dangerous and the negative. This is not a bad thing — it is an evolutionary necessity for survival and progress.

Yes, you read it right. Without negativity bias, there is no progress. Our ancestors had to be vigilant to stay alive. Noticing danger, such as a predator, or memorizing poisonous plants were necessary for survival. On the other hand, missing out on a tasty lunch, or sex, though not fun leads to nothing more but short term discomfort. So it happened that humans selected for mild anxiety and negativity scanning.

Without a mild dissatisfaction and anxiety about how things are, we don’t have the drive to create something better. Every invention came out of the mind of someone who thought “there is a better way…”

So here we are progressing along with our negativity searching brain, but we do need to learn to mindfully manage our negativity bias. Here are a few simple steps:

1.) Make friends with anxiety. Don’t make it negative. Understand that it is a useful part of human development. Whatever we fight we make it stronger. Let go the fight, merely recognize anxiety.

2.) Look around, is there anything positive? Last month I wrote about how I found joy in the middle of adversity. I hope I inspired some of you to start a gratitude journal. If you are a new reader and wondering about what I mean by “gratitude journal” it simple; before going to bed at night, take time to write a few things down that are good, wisdom that you learned through adversity, the knowledge that you gained, and connections that you found or lost for the better. At first, this practice is weird, it may even seem artificial, but overtime it will teach your mind balance attention from negative to positive.

3.) Start a mindful yoga practice. Yoga allows us to integrate our body, breath, and mind and balance out our attention. We often process emotions physically, our conscious brain is not as good at letting go anxiety as our body. Mindful movement allows for healthy integration and balance of emotions.

Notice, I did not say get rid of the negative. All feelings are important, when we try to get rid, or suppress our emotions, we run into trouble… but more on that next month. Yes, being mindful is a balancing act, which is why it is essential to have a daily practice.

Dora Gyarmati teaches yoga and mindfulness classes. She owns Spira Power Yoga in Issaquah and West Seattle. Her company M3Bmethod also lectures on resilience and stress management to healthcare professionals.


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