Why our brains react strongly to what’s unpleasant

I just can't let it go

Getting stuck in negative mental ruts is painful and distracts from what’s good in life.

Challenging situations are often mentally sticky and hard to shake. They easily start to colour our lives.

Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, a senior fellow from UC Berkeley, coined the phrase, “our brains are Teflon for what’s positive, and Velcro for the negative.”

Our brains react strongly to what’s unpleasant. 

The tendency of the brain to overemphasize what’s challenging keeps us stuck in a constant state of stress, and we can feel victim to life’s challenges.  It’s called the inherent negativity bias, the tendency of our minds to pay more attention to danger.

Research shows it takes five positives to offset one negative criticism in healthy relationships.  The same is true for life’s experiences. We’re biologically wired to pay more attention to what’s challenging or negative; it’s a safety mechanism for survival.

When stuck in a negative mental loop, our bodies quickly follow suit, as shots of stress hormones circulate. It doesn’t matter if challenging situations are currently happening or coming from memory; our bodies react as if we’re faced with the threat in the present moment. 

It’s challenging to switch gears once we’ve rehearsed a negative mental loop because neurons, or brain cells, that “fire together, wire together,” according to Hanson. Each time we practice a mental thought, negative mental connections become stronger. 

This easily colours our perspectives on life, and we can become negative, cynical, or pessimistic. It’s easy to start seeing only what’s bad, as the storehouse of the negative grows more quickly than what’s good. 

We don’t have to be victim to our negative thoughts, and with practice we can change the landscape of our minds. We can change our set-point for happiness, thanks to neuroplasticity.

It’s not about trying to ignore or suppress what’s difficult; it’s learning to use what’s good in our lives to consciously change our brains.

In the shadows of life’s challenges, we often miss seeing what’s good. 

We can learn to look for what’s good, and allow it to serve us to restructure our brains for happiness.

It’s not about being Pollyanna, but using life’s simple pleasures to restore our balance and perspective.

Dr. Hanson has created a simple yet effective practice, with the acronym of H.E.A.L., that helps change the neural landscape of our brains, allowing us to consciously create more connections for what’s good.

H:  Have and notice good experiences that, in reality, are happening all around us. These can be happening in real-time or be retrieved from a memory.

E: Enrich the experience, savour and expand it. 

A: Absorb it. Allow yourself to drink-in the good feelings of the experience for five to 20 seconds. 

L: Linking it to a moderately challenging experience is an optional step, in which we flip back and forth between savouring the good, and what’s been mildly challenging. 

It benefits us to intentionally stimulate positive feelings. The longer we hold the positive in our awareness, the more emotionally stimulating it is, according to University of Toronto researcher Marc Lewis. 

When we consciously prolong our experience of positive things, it starts to change our ability to take in the good and increases our positive response.

The fourth step of linking is optional, and isn’t required. It’s beneficial though, because when we practice linking the challenging with the good, it allows what’s painful to be infused with feelings of peace and comfort and reduces the suffering created by challenge.  

The more we allow ourselves to take in the good, the more effective we are in navigating what’s not.

Practicing H.E.A.L. doesn’t have instant results, as Hanson says, “it’s the law of little things,” and the cumulative effect of practice creates positive change. New positive neural connections develop over time.

You can begin the practice right now, and repeat it periodically throughout your day.

What’s something good in your life right now; think of a compliment, kind word, or sweet success. Take a few moments to bring one to mind, and fill in the details, make it big, and spend some time savouring it. 

Here’s to your health and happiness.


Comments are pre-moderated to ensure they meet our guidelines. Approval times will vary. Keep it civil, and stay on topic. If you see an inappropriate comment, please use the ‘flag’ feature. Comments are the opinions of the comment writer, not of Castanet. Comments remain open for one day after a story is published and are closed on weekends. Visit Castanet’s Forums to start or join a discussion about this story.

More New Thought articles

About the Author

Corinne is first a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose eclectic background has created a rich alchemy that serves to inform her perspectives on life.

Corinne, a registered nurse with a master’s degree in Health Science, is a staff minister with the Centre for Spiritual Living Kelowna, and a hospice volunteer. She is an adjunct professor with the school of nursing  at UBC Okanagan, and is currently teaching smartUBC, a unique Mindfulness program offered at UBC, to the public. She is an invited speaker and presenter.

From diverse experience and knowledge, personally and professionally, Corinne has developed an extraordinary passion for helping people to gain a new perspective, awaken, and to recognize that we do not have to be a slave to our thoughts or to life; we are always at a point of change.

Through this column, Corinne blends her insights and research to provide food for the mind and the heart, to encourage an awakening of the power and potential within everyone.

Corinne lives in Kelowna with her husband of 41 years, and can be reached at [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories