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Negative Drift What It Is and How to Stop It

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Negative drift: what is it? Do you suffer from negative drift? Do your thoughts drift towards negativity? What causes it? How does it harm you? What techniques can you use to overcome negative drift? What will the consequences be if you don’t? How can you prevent negative drift?

What is negative drift?

Have you ever noticed your thoughts gradually becoming negative? Have you found yourself needing to snap out of a negative downward spiral that started with just one negative thought? 

Has the self-posed question, “Did I turn the gas off,” turned, one negative thought at a time, into, “OMG, the house has probably blown up, and I am homeless”?

Have you sat down to relax, feeling good, and your mind revisited all sorts of negative experiences in your life?

Most people have. That is, negative drift.

Negative drift is the cause of a wide range of mental health and other problems. 

Do you suffer from negative drift? Here are some questions to help you self-assess whether you experience negative drift. When you have free “head space” do you tend to engage in:

  • Rumination. Do you dwell on your past mistakes and failures? Do you replay them in your mind?
  • Catastrophising. Do you make the leap to exploring worst-case scenarios, imagining every potential disaster that could befall you?
  • Negative self-talk. Does your inner-dialogue quickly become your harshest critic, by highlighting all your flaws and shortcomings?
  • Overgeneralising. Do you move from regretting a mistake, or negative experience, on to damning every aspect of your character? Does any one of your failures make, in your mind, all of you a failure?
  • Negating your positives. Do you spend very little time thinking about your positive attributes and achievements? If someone has praised you, do you tend to shrug off, or be dismissive of the praise?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then you experience negative drift. Here is the good news: most people do. Let lose, most people find their minds drifting in to negativity.

As with most mental processes, negative drift exists on a continuum. At one end, everyone experiences occasional periods of negativity. Indeed, it is healthy and empowering to look at the negatives for just as long as it takes to decide what to do about them. 

At the other end of the spectrum, when negative thinking becomes a person’s dominant mental habit, that is highly predictive of the person developing mental health problems.

What causes negative drift?

The research on the origins of negative drift points to several possible causes.

Family and peer influence

If someone grows up in a family, or with a peer group that tends to focus on the negatives in life, the pressure to fit in and conform will drive all but the most self-responsible towards negative drift as part of their identity. 

Once established, few people are even aware that they have such a life impeding habit. The adage “if you spend enough time with a dog, you catch its fleas,” applies. If you spend enough time with negative people, you will become one.

Cognitive biases

Our cognitive biases influence how we process information. We all have cognitive biases. Some are helpful, others are harmful. For instance, some people, optimists, have positivity biases. Those biases are generally helpful to mental wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, pessimists tend to have biases at the opposite end of the scale, with all the predictable consequences.  

Negativity bias

Negativity bias makes people attend more to negative information than positive information. Even when information is positive, in an objective way, those with negativity bias will interpret the information in negative ways. 

Here are some examples: 

If someone with negativity bias receives an adverse comment, it will tend to play on their mind for a long time. 

If they receive a positive comment, they are likely to interpret it in a negative way. The compliment, “You are really persistent,” would be morphed into “They think I am stubborn.”

Confirmation bias

Humans seek information that confirms their existing beliefs. If we expect the worst, we tend to be more aware of details that confirm our negativity and ignore evidence to the contrary. Once started negativity bias is perpetuated by confirmation bias.


From an evolutionary standpoint, negativity bias seems to have emerged as a survival mechanism. If we are more mindful of potential threats, real or imagined, we can be better equipped to deal with and avoid danger. The same disposition that enabled our survival, then, when applied in a non-life-threatening environment, now, seems to be actively harmful to our mental health.

Emotional management

Our thoughts influence our emotions, and vice-versa. Negative emotional or physical states can, and for some people, do, lead to negative drift. 

For example, one person may be thrilled, and energised by the pressure to perform, while another feels the situation as stress and drifts into negative thinking patterns. 

Some people are highly skilled when it comes to managing their emotions, and others find their minds controlled by their emotions. It seems that the more skilled someone is at managing their emotions, the less likely they are to experience negative drift. 

Sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep, and sleep disturbance are major cause of negative drift. People find it very difficult to remain positive and optimistic when they are sleep deprived. There seems to be a vicious cycle: sleep deprivation makes negative drift more likely. Negative drift makes sleep disturbance more likely.

Adverse experiences

There is a strong likelihood that those who have the greatest life adversities are most prone to negative drift. However, for a small number of people, adversity seems to be their anvil of achievement, and they will not allow negative drift to get hold of them. 

Which theory explains negative drift?

Most human mental behaviours (helpful and harmful) can emerge in several ways. That seems likely with negative drift, too. That means, any one of the theories above, may be responsible for it. Or, two or more theories may explain negative drift in one person, but none can explain it in another. 

Does negative drift cause other problems? Or is it the consequence of other problems? Or, is there is reciprocal relationship between other problems and negative drift? 

Evidence exists for all three. That means it is wise to avoid negative thoughts and if they do emerge, to immediately replace them with something more empowering. More on that later.

What harm does negative drift cause?

In short, the list is nearly endless.

  • Lost opportunity. Imagine someone being presented with a life-changing, positive opportunity. They start off seeing the potential they have been given. Then negative drift kicks in. They start imagining all sorts of what-ifs. “What if it is not as good as it seems. What if it is a con? What if I am not good enough to grasp it? What if I mess it up? What if this changes who I am? What if it all goes wrong? What if…” and down they go into the negative spiral that leads them to reject the opportunity.
  • Decreased productivity. Negative drift moves people towards negative thinking about nearly everything, given the time to think.  That drains their energy and motivation, making it harder to focus on or complete tasks, which, of course, has a knock-on effect on productivity.
  • Damaged relationships. Imagine what someone who was prone to negative drift would do, even in an ideal relationship. They would start off with fairly minor negative thoughts, and over time, those would build up into a storm in their minds. Eventually, their internal negativity would come out and start destroying the relationship.
  • Damaged physical health. We have known for a long time that habitual negative thinking is hugely damaging to physical health. Negative thinking leads to the release of “bad” hormones throughout the body. The chronic stress that negative drift creates is known to weaken the immune system, with all the problems that brings.
  • Mental health damage. Negative drift can create a self-deepening cycle to cause or worsen all sorts of mental health problems (anxiety, depression, phobias, and OCD, among others).

Any of the consequences above or combination of them, can indicate that a person is suffering from negative drift. 

Negating negative drift

  • Negative drift is not an inevitability. One of the mental habits of ultra-high achievers is that they manage their thinking, and that includes negating negative drift. Most people can take steps to manage their thoughts and negate negative drift:
  • Thought substitution. When your mind starts to drift towards the negative, the disempowering, as soon as you spot it, replace the thought with something empowering.
  • Direct challenge. If you find yourself having negative, disempowering thoughts, challenge them. They are usually baseless. Here is an example of a useful challenge. “Is that true, or mere speculation on my part?”
  • Reframing. Very often, a negative thought emerges because of the way we frame the situation. Being made redundant, if you hate your job, and want out, is great; you get a pay-off to leave. If you have framed redundancy as the end of your life, it is felt as devasting. Creating a framing that makes you feel empowered is wise. Even if you have been made redundant from a job you loved, you can reframe it as an opportunity for new growth, for a new adventure.
  • Positive affirmations.  Choose a self-affirmation that you can use anytime negativity starts to drift in. Repeat that self-affirmation as a mantra as and when needed.
  • Count your blessings. If Mr or Mrs Negativity shows up, make clear to them they are not welcome at your gratitude fest. Think of all the wonderful things you have experienced. Rehearse them to yourself.
  • Demonstrate Self-care to you. If negativity shows up, immediately do something that reminds you that you look after you! Do something that is good for you. Take some exercise, go for a walk, read some inspirational material, and watch a motivational video. Show your mind that nurturing you is important enough for you to act on it.
  • Develop pronoia. Pronoia is the opposite of paranoia. It is the mental state of thinking the world is out to help.

Final thoughts

Adopting, deliberately, an attitude of “every event is out to help me” may go too far; there are adverse people and events in life. Going some way in that direction is empowering. How? The phrases, “always look on the bright side of life” and “every cloud has a silver lining” have taken hold because of their intrinsic wisdom. 

Making it a habit to find the up-side in what most people would see as a set-back or adversity, is highly empowering. Such life-affirming mental habits are known to increase mental fitness and provide much mental health protection. 

With so many ways to deal with negative drift, which of the above techniques will you use to improve your well-being?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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