Unpleasant experiences are a natural part of life. And some of them have benefits. Sorrow can tenderize your heart, hardship can make you stronger, and anger can energize you to deal with mistreatment. Further, if you resist unpleasant experiences, this blocks their flow through your mind and body, and they stick around. If you go negative on the negative, you just have more negative.

But when unpleasant experiences become negative material stored in your brain, that’s not good. Negative material has negative consequences. It darkens your mood, increases anxiety and irritability, and gives you a background sense of inadequacy. The desires and inclinations in it take you to bad places. It can numb you and muzzle you. Or it can make you overreact to others, which can create vicious circles of negativity. Negative material impacts your body, wears down long-term mental and physical health, and can potentially shorten your lifespan.

Overall, negative material in your brain is like a strong current continually tugging you toward the reactive mode. The good news is you can actually change it, even to the point of clearing it out entirely.

Two Methods for Changing Negative Material

If something other than negative material is also present in awareness, it is represented by its own coalition of synapses. The two coalitions start linking together, since neurons that fire together, wire together. Therefore, you can deliberately be aware of both positive and negative material, so that the positive will connect with the negative. In effect, strongly positive thoughts and feelings will begin weaving their way into the negative material. When the negative material leaves awareness to be reconsolidated in neural structure, it will tend to take some of these positive links with it. When the negative material is next reactivated, it will also tend to bring along some of these positive associations, these positive thoughts and feelings.

1. Overwrite the Negative

Let’s say you had a minor argument with a friend. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but you know rationally that you two will be all right. Still, you can’t stop worrying about it. So what you could do is to be aware, at the same time, of both your anxiety and a feeling of being cared about by the other person. Keep making the positive feelings stronger than the negative ones while being aware of both of them at once. After a dozen or more seconds, let the anxiety go and stay with the feeling of being cared about for another dozen seconds or so. If the worry about the relationship returns, it could be a little (or a lot) milder as a result of this brief practice. And as with any mental practice, the more you do it, the greater its impact on your brain. This is the first method for using positive material to reduce negative material.

Still, as beneficial as this infusion of positive into negative is, research indicates that it can sometimes merely “overwrite” the negative material without actually erasing it, like a pretty picture painted on top of a grim older one. When negative material is overwritten, it might return with a vengeance if the right trigger is present. Or it could be easier to reacquire down the road.

2. Erase the Negative

To deal with these potential weaknesses of overwriting negative material with positive material, new research is pointing to a second method for reducing negative material: certain psychological protocols literally erase negative associations in neural structure, rather than just overwriting them. Here’s how it works. Negative material is often associated with a neutral “trigger.” Suppose that in your childhood you had a male sports coach who was loud, critical, and scary. In this case, male authority—a neutral trigger, since male authority is not inherently negative—became connected in your brain to experiences of fear and humiliation (negative material). If so, these days you might still feel uncomfortable around a male authority figure at work even though you know intellectually that he’s not going to treat you like your coach did when you were young. How can you break the chain that ties the neutral trigger to the negative material?

In your brain, there’s a “window of reconsolidation” that lasts at least an hour that you can use to do this. For at least an hour after the negative material has been activated and then left awareness, repeatedly bringing to mind the neutral trigger while feeling only neutral or positive (for roughly a dozen seconds or longer) will disrupt the reconsolidation of the negative associations to the neutral trigger in neural structure, even reducing amygdala activation related to the neutral trigger.

Working with the example here of a male authority figure, you could use both methods for reducing negative material. First, hold in mind a strong sense of self-worth along with a memory in the background of awareness of being embarrassed by the coach when you were young; in doing this, you’re consciously linking positive and negative material. Second, after letting go of the painful memory, for a few times over the next hour or so, be aware of only neutral or positive things—such as a feeling of worth—while also bringing to mind the idea of male authority or a memory or an image of a male authority figure that you know (the neutral trigger) for a dozen seconds or longer.

You could use this method in your everyday activities as well. Just before a meeting with a man who is an authority figure, you could link in awareness both the strong sense of worth and the painful memory of the sports coach. Then, during the meeting with the man, re-access the sense of worth several times with no reference to the old memory of your coach. You could also try this approach in a lower-key way, such as by simply watching the male authority figure across a room while repeatedly renewing your sense of worth.

This is an excerpt from Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Clam, and Confidence by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Additional References

Rick Hanson, Shauna Shapiro, Emma Hutton-Thamm, Michael R. Hagerty & Kevin P. Sullivan (2021) Learning to learn from positive experiences, The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.2006759