The way we process emotional content is critical to the way we perceive information and navigate the world around us. Because it is impossible to attend to everything in our environment, we have evolved to selectively attend to some information while filtering out other, less important information. Biased attention to negative emotional information has specifically been implicated in psychological disorders like depression and anxiety. In therapy, this bias towards negative emotionality is described as a “negative filter.” The negative filter can refer to preferential attention to negative information, the interpretation of ambiguous information as more negative, decreased attention to positive information, or a decreased ability to differentiate the positive from the negative. In other words, negative filtering is focusing on the negative while discounting the positive.
In the current landscape, it can be hard not to let your negative filter take over. Numerous cases of racial injustice as well as the stresses and losses associated with the COVID-19 crisis contribute a great deal of negativity to our daily lives. Why does that matter? Research suggests having a negative filter promotes repetitive negative thinking, or “rumination,” which can make it difficult to disengage your attention from negative information. A negative filter can maintain low mood by intensifying or prolonging feelings of sadness (Gotlib, Krasnoperova, Yue, & Joormann, 2004; Silton et al., 2010). Put simply, that bias towards negativity may make you more vulnerable to feeling sad or anxious as you get caught in a cycle of filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative.
What can you do about it? The first step is awareness. Having trouble letting go of the negative or acknowledging the positive can become so automatic we barely notice. Have people around you noted that tendency? Have you generally felt more pessimistic? Have you noticed yourself having higher, unrealistic expectations of yourself and feeling disappointed when you cannot meet them? Just being vigilant to negative filtering can help you take on less pessimistic perspectives.
A next step can be purposeful mindfulness of the positive. Sometimes it feels inappropriate to appreciate the positive when we feel surrounded by negativity. Remind yourself that you can acknowledge both the negative AND positive. Purposefully attending to the positive does not have to mean avoiding a reality that sometimes feels negative. Yes, the situation with COVID-19 is scary right now, but it is also okay to take a moment to celebrate that good grade or promotion, or appreciate a nice meal or favorite movie. Guided mindfulness meditations can specifically help you focus on the positive aspects of life; for example, practicing gratitude or loving kindness. You can use YouTube to find examples of these practices or use apps like Headspace or MyLife (free!). It can be helpful to set a daily reminder to practice these mindfulness exercises to make them part of your daily routine.
If you notice your filter making it hard to even notice the positive, take a moment to challenge the notion that everything is bad. Does the evidence suggest that things really are all bad, or is there wiggle room? Try challenging your filter using evidence from your life. It can also be helpful to adopt the perspective of a friend or relative– would they come to the same conclusion given the situation, or if not, what is it that they would be focusing on that you are not?
Quarantine means we are more likely to give in to behaviors that may maintain our low mood. This might include staying in bed during the day, not getting out of the house, or socially isolating from friends and family (which is easier than ever with social distancing). Another step to combat the blues and help overcome negative filtering is to participate in positive activities. In therapy, this is termed “behavioral activation.” Although our negative filter may lower our motivation and increase our desire to withdraw and isolate, activating ourselves can effectively boost our mood, as has been demonstrated by a great deal of research (Cuijpers et al., 2007). Behavioral activation is a bit like intentionally putting the cart before the horse. When we feel down, instead of following our desire to avoid activities, tasks, and social interactions, behavioral activation is acting in opposite of our emotion by doing the activities we would normally do when feeling good (Linehan, 2014). These types of activities can jump-start our mood. Additionally, activation can reinforce positivity, thus combatting that negative filter.
By incorporating daily activities and goals into your day, you can help to break the downward spiral that often accompanies a negative filter. Examples of especially good activities include those you find pleasurable and those that help you to feel effective or productive. It can be hard to start incorporating these types of activities when you are feeling down, so it helps to set a daily reminder or incorporate friends and family to help you stay motivated and engaged. It can be tough to begin, but start with smaller activities (e.g. reading a book, listening to a new podcast, trying a new food, etc.) and build up (e.g. go hiking, prepare a new recipe, start a blog, etc.). When in doubt, it is always good to try to incorporate social activities, like video calls with friends, or forms of exercise, like your favorite online dance workout.
In the end, remember that emotions are waves, and no emotion lasts forever. It may take time to ride that wave, but these steps have been shown to help people move through that process more quickly. When you feel down, take a moment to acknowledge that sadness and remember that it is a temporary feeling. Maybe enlist the help of a friend who can help you see the bright side. Take a moment to acknowledge the positive in your life and try to go for a walk, schedule a video chat, or play that game getting dusty on your shelf (Pandemic, anyone?).
Gotlib IH, Krasnoperova E, Yue DN, Joormann J. Attentional Biases for Negative Interpersonal Stimuli in Clinical Depression. J Abnorm Psychol. 2004. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.113.1.121
Silton RL, Heller W, Towers DN, et al. The time course of activity in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex during top-down attentional control. Neuroimage. 2010;50(3):1292-1302. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.12.061
Cuijpers, P., Van Straten, A., & Warmerdam, L. (2007). Behavioral activation treatments of depression: A meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 27(3), 318-326.
Linehan, M. (2014). DBT? Skills training manual. Guilford Publications.