Ep #86: Negativity Bias and Grief

Negativity Bias and Grief

When you think back to your person and your time together, do you notice good memories or bad memories that come flooding back? I often have vivid, almost technicolor memories of the accident and moments from the hospital, but struggle to remember the amazing memories of our adventures from before. If this is your experience as well, this episode is for you.

This week, I’m introducing you to a concept called negativity bias. Our brains have evolved to prioritize remembering the negative events and situations of our lives to keep us safe, but what you don’t see is how it’s making grief even more challenging than it already is.

Join me on the podcast this week to discover the three ways negativity bias impacts your experience of grief, and what you can do to start proactively combatting your brain’s tendency to do this. While this trait was extremely valuable to us at one point in time, bringing awareness to it and learning to retrain your brain is going to help you truly enjoy the next chapter of your life.

Listen to the Full Episode:

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What negativity bias is and how it was valuable to us at one point in time.
  • 3 ways negativity bias can show up and make grief even more challenging than it already is.
  • What happens when we’re not aware of our negativity bias.
  • The 5 things our brains have evolved to do.
  • One simple thing you can do every single day to start proactively combatting your brain’s negativity bias.


Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, episode 86, Negativity Bias and Grief.

Welcome to The Widowed Mom Podcast, the only podcast that offers a proven process to help you work through your grief, to grow, evolve, and create a future you can truly look forward to. Here’s your host, Master Certified life coach, grief expert, widow, and mom, Krista St-Germain.

Hey there. Welcome to another episode of the podcast. You are listening to this in 2021. I am still in 2020 as I record it for you, so hopefully by the time your ears are listening to this podcast, things are looking up. That’s my hope. I’m just going to hold on to that for now.

It’s been an interesting kind of whirlwind of a month. I haven’t been an update lately, but just to kind of bring you up to speed with what’s been going on for me. So my late husband Hugo’s son Lance, my stepson was in town for about a week, which I was so excited about. We haven’t seen Lance in two years because he’s in the Marines and he’s stationed far away.

So to have him here for an entire week was amazing. And he brought his girlfriend and we got to hang out with both of them. It’s fascinating how much my children have changed. My daughter is 17 and my son is 13, how much they have changed since we last saw Lance. And it was really fun to see them interact.

My favorite moment was just watching my daughter hug her brother. And super cool, but also to see my son is pretty much taller than Lance now, which is just crazy because he’s always looked up to Lance and Lance has just always been his bigger brother. So now to see him be taller than Lance is crazy and his voice has dropped.

Anyway, so that was really fun. Also brought up some feelings because while he was here, I had him go through some of his dad’s stuff and kind of make some decisions about some other things that he might want me to save for him or might want to part with. So you know, even four and a half years later, still opportunities come up that bring up the feelings and that’s okay.

I want to – honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. I wouldn’t want it to just be super easy to go through this stuff. I like that it has memories and I like that it reminds me of Hugo, and I kind of like that it’s not easy. Because what I make that mean is that our love was amazing and special and that’s why losing him hurts so much is because loving him was so amazing.

So there was that part. And then Christmas went completely unexpectedly. My kids were going to be with their biological dad for the holidays, and so I had plans to be with the boyfriend and Christmas Eve, he tested positive for COVID.

So goodness, but so far I have not. I went and took a test; I was not positive. We’re not really sure, who knows with COVID where it came from, how he got it. We’ve been pretty darn careful. But anyway, he got it. Right now he’s doing okay, just battling fever and fatigue. So wasn’t the way that I had hoped it would be, but it really could be so much worse.

I was just talking to a woman last week who lost her husband from COVID earlier this year and it’s just – it’s a really, really tough year for lots of people. So my Christmas didn’t go as planned, but still, much to be thankful for. So that’s where we are.

Okay, let’s talk about negativity bias and grief. By the end of this episode, you’re going to understand what negativity bias is because maybe you’ve never heard of it, how it can show up and make things even more challenging than they already are in grief, why it’s so easy for our brain to focus on and remember the negative, while forgetting we’re not even seeing the positive. And I’m going to give you one simple thing you can do every day to start proactively combatting your brain’s negativity bias. Are you ready?

First, what is negativity bias? Because this might be the first time you’ve ever heard of it. So I’m going to give you the basics. And I would like to pause for a second and thank Dr. Rick Hanson who is a neuropsychologist and the well-known author of many books, including Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, Neurodharma, and Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.

I have learned so much from him and I am very grateful for how his teaching has contributed to my life. So I just want to say a little thank you to Dr. Rick Hanson before we even get started. Okay, negativity bias. Negativity bias is a stone-age bias that exists in our brain, which results in us paying more attention to negative situations and negative events than positive ones.

And back in the day, when we needed to focus on survival, when our ancestors had to be regularly concerned about predators that could kill them, this negativity bias was valuable. It was necessary actually because then we lived in an age of carrots and sticks.

I like this way of looking at it. We wanted the carrots, the food and the relationships and the good stuff, but our survival depended upon our ability to avoid the sticks. The dangerous animals, people who meant us harm, other threats to our physical survival.

So if we missed out on a carrot, there would always be another day, another opportunity that we could get the carrot. We didn’t have to prioritize the carrots as much as the sticks. Because if we didn’t prioritize the sticks and we missed one of those, like a scary predator type creature, then death. No more life. No more carrots.

So sticks had to be more important than carrots. So those humans who had a strong ability to sense danger, a strong bias towards the scary sticks, the negatives, those humans were the ones who survived. And those who were off smelling the flowers and enjoying the sunsets and focusing all of their energy on the carrots but not really paying attention to the tiger lurking in the grass, they didn’t survive.

So genetically, our evolution prioritized and then refined and passed down brains that were more sensitive to the negativity, to the negative than the positive, hence we have a bias towards the negative. So for a second, I want you to imagine the movie The Croods. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Think about the dad of the caveman family. He was played by Nicholas Cage. Nicholas Cage did his voice. It’s an animated show. I’ve used this example before, but I love it because it’s so memorable. Do you remember this caveman dad? He was absolutely determined to keep his family in the cave.

Unless they had to go out for food, there was no other reason in his mind that they should go out. And he struggled to imagine that good things could happen outside the cave at all because he was so focused on protecting his family from threats.

And in fact, when his daughter’s sense of adventure leads the family outside of the cave, where they spend much of the movie, he pretty much complains the entire time. His brain was a shining example of negativity bias, of the five things that our brains have evolved to do.

So his brain was great at scanning for bad news, over-focusing on it, overreacting to it, and over-remembering it, and then getting even more sensitized to the negative through the stress hormone cortisol, which that’s probably a whole other podcast by itself.

But that’s what our brain has evolved to do. Scan the environment for bad news, over-focus on it, overreact to it, over-remember it, and then through the stress hormone cortisol, get even more sensitized to it, to the negative. So our brain has evolved to become really, really good at learning from bad experiences and not as good at learning from good experiences.

And this is why negative experiences are like Velcro to the brain. They’re very sticky. But positive experiences are like Teflon to the brain. They tend to just slide right off. In fact, most of the good experiences that people have really don’t leave much of a trace.

Think back to the past week for a second. What jumps out at you? Is it the stuff that you interpret as good or is it the stuff that you interpret as bad? For most of us, it’s the bad. We may have had 10 lovely interactions with someone, and then one bad interaction, but what do we remember? What do we fixate on? It’s the bad one of course.

Okay, so now you know what negativity bias is, let’s talk about what it has to do with grief and being a widow. I’m sure there are probably more impacts than just the ones that I want to talk about, but I want to bring to your attention at least three ways that I see negativity bias impacting us.

Everyone’s different of course and you may have been maybe actively working to train your brain to be less sensitive to the negative. And so maybe all of these aren’t true for you, and if that’s the case, I love that for you. But for the most of the rest of us who haven’t actually been trying to train our brain to focus less on the negative and more on the positive, we’re probably being impacted in these ways.

And we’ll touch later on a simple way that you can start to train your brain to focus more on the positive, but I want you to think about these three areas just for a second. And then we’re going to dive into each one of them.

So negativity bias can impact your memories of your partner and your relationship, it can impact your relationships with other people, and it can impact your ability to create the next chapter of life and truly love it. And you know if you listen to this podcast that I am all about creating the next chapter of life that we genuinely can get excited about. Not settling for some mediocre new normal where we’re just biding our time.

And if you’re listening to the podcast, then I assume that the memories of your partner and your relationships with other people that you care about and your ability to create the next chapter of life, it’s important to you. It matters.

A little disclaimer before I jump into the meat of some of this. For those of you who have been following me for a while, and perhaps you’re students of thought work and the self-coaching model, or maybe you’re my clients. When I talk about good stuff and when I talk about bad stuff in this context, I’m doing so with the understanding that good stuff and bad stuff is all subjective interpretation.

But I’m talking about when we believe our interpretation. So please don’t think the model doesn’t apply here. It does. I know that good and bad don’t actually exist outside of the mind, outside of our interpretation, but we’re just kind of forgoing that for a bit and talking about those instances where we believe that it’s good, or we believe that it’s bad.

So that’s my disclaimer. Alright, let’s talk about how negativity bias impacts your memories of him, of your partner. I think back to what I remember, and I notice how much my brain wants to focus on the bad stuff. How much easier it is for me to remember the accident, to remember moments from the hospital.

Some of those memories are vivid like technicolor to me. Not all of them, thankfully. Some of them are I think little trauma capsules that my brain has hidden from me perhaps and I’m okay with that. I don’t really need to remember all of it.

But those memories are, many of them, vivid and bright. And I compare that to what you would think might be an equally memorable moment. I kind of sifted back through our time, those few months before he died. I don’t even remember what we did on Valentine’s Day that year.

And knowing him, it was good. But my brain doesn’t seem to want to bring me that memory. A few weeks before he died, we hiked Mount Yale, which is a 14er in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, and when I think about that, does my brain go to the beautiful scenery? Does my brain go to the view from the peaks of how amazing it was and the sense of accomplishment we felt?

No, no it does not. My brain goes to how much it hurt at the end of that hike to walk down the mountain with a broken toe. Somewhere along the line, my boots weren’t fitting well and enough pressure going down the mountain over time caused a break, fracture in my toe.

I’m very well aware of what that felt like and was like, but I actually have to work to remember the good parts of that hike. So if it’s happening to me and I see it happening in my clients, it’s probably happening to you. So notice how your brain might be focusing on the negative as it relates to him and your memories.

Is it focusing more on the one time you didn’t say I love you, instead of the hundreds of times that you did? Is it focusing on the times that you fell short as a partner to him instead to the times that you got it right? Is it focused only on his death and the time that you won’t have together that you thought you would, or is it focused on how amazing your time together was?

My brain wanted to forget that Hugo showed me what it was really like to be loved. He did. And I had to keep reminding myself of what he brought to my life, because otherwise my brain only wanted to focus on what I thought I lost when he died.

And maybe your brain is doing that too. It’s not right or wrong or good or bad. I just want you to notice how often your brain focuses on the negative as it relates to your memories. And if you want to experience those differently, then we’re going to have to cut ourselves some slack.

We’re going to have to consider the impact of our brain’s negativity bias. We’re going to have to consider that it’s possible that our brain is so focused on the negative that we aren’t seeing the whole story and then we’re going to want to choose some more intention to the whole story, including the good stuff that happened that our negativity bias might be preventing us from seeing.

So that’s your memories of him. How about your relationships with family, with friends, with coworkers, with people that you care about? Think about when you go to bed at night and you’re kind of thinking back through your day and what happened. I bet that if we could somehow mathematically calculate the ratio of the good things that happened during your day versus the bad things that happened during your day, and keep in mind, thought work friends, this is thoughts.

It’s not objective outside of the human brain, but if we could go back and add up what actually happened during the day, we would probably find that you had a much higher ratio of “positive” to “negative” interactions with people. But in that moment where you’re recalling your day, I’d bet a whole lot of money that what your brain is focused on isn’t the stuff that it thinks went right. Of course not. It’s totally focusing on the things that it thinks went wrong.

This is why studies have shown that long-lasting relationships typically have at least a five positive to one negative event ratio, meaning that for every one negative interaction we have, we need to have five positive interactions to balance it. Five to one.

So if we’re aware of this and we can become skeptical of our brain’s story about how many of our interactions with people are negative versus how many of them are positive, then we can lighten up a little bit. Not only can we change our thoughts if we want to, we can choose and discern how we want to see those interactions.

But even when we don’t, we can put things back in their proper perspective. We can remind ourselves that our brain is wearing skepticals, as my friend and colleague Kara Loewentheil jokes. Like glasses, spectacles that color the world with our negativity bias. She calls them skepticals.

And it’s so true. And if we could notice that we were wearing these skepticals, then we would talk to ourselves differently. We would say, “Oh yeah, this is the part where my brain wants to focus on all the negatives of that person when in reality, there’s so many things about them that I love.”

So if we aren’t aware of our negativity bias, we might actually think that there’s a greater ratio of negative to positive than what we otherwise might see if we were. Okay, so how about your ability to create the next chapter of life and truly love it?

Let’s think about what negativity bias does to those of us who are trying to figure this out. Now, even without negativity bias, it would already be completely foreign territory to move forward and love life without your person, right? It’s already scary enough to get out of our comfort zone and build something new.

But just to make it even more fun, we’re going to do that in the middle of an emotional rollercoaster, perhaps with widow fog, and with a brain that is hyper focused on the negative. A brain that is fine-tuned to focus on any real or perceived snake that it notices in the grass.

Seriously, negativity bias, if we’re not aware of it can really make things more difficult when we’re trying to love our life again. So what do we do? What do we do about this negativity bias? Here’s what I want to offer. First, we have to be aware. We have to know it exists. We have to see the negativity bias for what it is. We have to be skeptical. We have to know we’re wearing skepticals.

We have to know that we have a brain that’s showing us more of the bad stuff than the good stuff. That’s first. And hopefully after listening to this podcast, you’re starting to see that.

Then we have to remember that the brain is malleable. For years, science has known this. Science has known that patterns in the brain can be changed, that the brain isn’t just something that develops to a certain point and then is fixed.

Growth mindset has to do with what’s actually happening physically in our brain, that we can create new patterns in our brain. The brain is malleable. You’ve probably heard the saying neurons that fire together wire together. You don’t have to know the details or all the science behind it, but you do have to believe it’s possible that we can change patterns in our brain.

And another saying I like is that passing mental states become lasting neural traits. I could probably do a whole episode on why this happens, how that actually happens, that our way of being, our passing mental state eventually, if done with repetition and emotion, becomes a trait in our brain, a lasting neural trait.

So neurons that fire together wire together, and passing mental states become lasting neural traits. Again, we don’t really need to know all the details of the science, but we do have to know that how we think actually does change our brain and how we feel actually does change our brain.

And because of this negativity bias, we have to then work at steering our brain to become more sensitive to the positive. We have to steer our brain to become more adept at seeing the positive. And you know if you’ve ever coached with me before or if you’re in my program, you know that I am always trying to get you to notice the victories, to notice the good things, to celebrate.

I’m always trying to get you to do that, whether you want to or not. But just noticing it, just thinking about the victories, just thinking about the things that are going right and intellectualizing them, that’s not enough. That’s not enough because any kind of learning that we do, any kind of process that involves changing the brain, it also has to involve a physical change in the body.

That’s what neural plasticity is. Again, neurons that fire together wire together. But we have to have the feeling that goes with the observation to make it all work together, to make it stick. We have to see the good thing and think about it, but then we have to feel it, and we have to hold that feeling in our body.

So this is something that anyone can do. And it’s really not hard. Three steps. Step one, notice something good. Think about it right now. Notice something in your life that as you think of it feels good.

Maybe it’s that you have a roof over your head, maybe it’s that you have a pet that you love, or a pet that loves you. Maybe it’s that your house is full of healthy humans right now. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter, but notice something good. That’s done in thought, we’re thinking about it. We’re making a judgment that something is good. So that’s step one. Notice.

Step two, and this is the part I think we miss a lot, is feel it in your body. How does it feel when you notice that good thing? Do that right now. Feel it. Breathe it in. Most of us are just conceptually thinking about things as opposed to actually embodying the good stuff.

So we want to notice it, but then we want to feel it. And then once we’ve got that feeling in our body, step three is we just want to take it in. We want to slow down. Feel the feeling, notice the good thing, and it’s that slowing down that helps our neurons fire together and then wire together.

This isn’t a pattern that we change overnight. This is a slow over time marathon, not a sprint kind of thing. But really, it only takes less than a minute. And it’s completely free. Anybody can do this. The more you do it, the better.

So yes, your brain’s going to want to go to the negative. It was built that way. At some point in our history, that was a very good thing. So we can be grateful that we have a brain that has a negativity bias. It has kept us alive.

But we can also be skeptical of that same brain’s negativity bias. We can also notice, maybe my brain isn’t really showing me the whole story, maybe my brain is hyper focused on my flaws, on the flaws of the people around me, on the ways in which the world is not going like I want, on the threats, on the dangers, on all the bad stuff.

And maybe the reason it’s so easy for me to recall those memories isn’t because there’s something wrong with me. It’s because the negative stuff sticks to my brain like Velcro. And the good stuff slides right off like Teflon.

And if I want to see more of the good, I can train my brain to do that. I need to notice it, I need to feel it in my body, and I need to stay there. Even if it’s just for 12 seconds, 20 seconds. But stay there as long as you can. Really let your body absorb the good and the felt sense of the good. Slow it down and create those new pathways in your brain.

Alright, I hope this helps you. There’s nothing wrong with you if your brain has a bias toward the negative. You’re just a human. And we all have it, so cut yourself some slack. I love you. You’ve got this. And I’ll see you next time. Have a great week.

If you like what you’ve been hearing on this podcast and want to create a future you can truly get excited about, even after the loss of your spouse, I invite you to join my Mom Goes On coaching program. It’s small group coaching just for widowed moms like you where I’ll help you figure out what’s holding you back and give you the tools and support you need so you can move forward with confidence.

Please don’t settle for a new normal that’s less than what you deserve. Go to coachingwithkrista.com and click Work With Me for details and next steps. I can’t wait to meet you.

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About your coach

I created a new life using small, manageable steps and techniques that made sense. The changes I experienced were so profound I became a Master Certified Life Coach and created a group coaching program for widows like us called Mom Goes On. It’s now my mission to show widowed moms exactly how to do what I’ve done and create a future they can look forward to.

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