Health

Staying Positive When You're Around Toxic People

You know the type: The person who can't look at a glass, no matter how full, without traveling to glass-half-empty land.

It's a tough gig staying positive when you’re with someone who is hell-bent on being negative. Staying positive when something negative is happening in your life is even harder.

Our brains are hardwired to be sensitive to negativity, similar to the fight-or-flight response: We hyper-focus on any perceived threat. That's great when the threat is an impending lion attack, but it's not so great when the threat is merely a negative colleague.

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Unfortunately, our built-in wiring can’t discern whether a threat is physical or emotional, and the center of our brains that deals with emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation goes into defensive mode either way. That narrows our field of vision and protects us and our egos by focusing all of our attention on the perceived threat.

"Negative emotions involve more thinking and therefore get processed more thoroughly than positive ones,” sociologist and former Stanford professor Clifford Nass wrote in The New York Times. "Almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail."

The danger in all of this is that exposure to negativity can lead to chronic health problems. Negative emotions are directly related to physical conditions such as hypertension, an impaired immune system, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and infections and can negatively affect one’s lifespan, research shows. Negative thinking is also directly correlated with depression, anxiety, and stress and can affect how emotionally resilient you are to challenging times.

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On the flip side, it's well documented that there are advantages to maintaining a positive outlook. Several experts have weighed in on the subject, including social psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, who has conducted research on the health benefits of positivity and gratitude; psychology expert Shawn Achor, who delivered a riveting TED Talk on the connection between positivity and success; and relationship expert John Gottman, who spent 40 years researching how positivity is good for healthy relationships.

What can you do when you’re confronted by friends, family, or colleagues who insist on sharing their negative narratives about their love lives, co-workers, that batch of non-gluten-free cookies you brought to the office?

Some suggestions:

  1. You may not always have the option of avoiding negative colleagues, friends, and family members, but you can choose how you interact with them. Limit the time you spend with negative people. Refuse to engage in complaining, drama, gossip, and arguments. Maintain a positive outlook in the face of unwelcome opinions or rude comments.
  2. Embrace a daily practice of gratitude: It can balance the emphasis our brains naturally place on negative events and emotions. Soon enough you’ll notice that your brain is focusing on recalling positive moments, leading to more open, expansive thinking and greater resiliency during tough times.
  3. Silence that inner critic. Allowing negative self-talk that you’re unworthy is both unproductive and detrimental to future growth. So stop it. Take note of what people and situations set off your inner critic. Stick to a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to negative self-dialogue. In time, you’ll train your inner critic to be more constructive and empathetic.
  4. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill. Remember this the next time you convince yourself that your boyfriend forgot your cereal from the grocery because he doesn’t care about you or your boss didn’t call you back because she hates you. Exaggerating the potential downside of minor events and ruminating over them will only crush your confidence and sabotage your relationships and career.
  5. Be introspective. There is evidence that negativity is addictive and that people who are addicted to it consciously or unconsciously seek out negative people, circumstances, and emotions. A little introspection can go a long way towards puzzling out why you find yourself surrounded by negativity and chaos.
  6. Remember: When the going gets tough. The tough get positive.