How Negative Phrasing Affects Your Brain, According To Experts


It might not seem like a big deal to say “I’m dead” when you’re laughing really hard or “Ugh, I’m so stupid” when you make a mistake. These exaggerated comments are a part of our language and can roll off the tongue a hundred times a day. Of course, they also happen to be super negative — and the folks over on wellness TikTok believe you should really stop saying them and lean into positive thinking instead.

Even though you don’t mean anything by it, using negative phrasing sends the wrong message to your brain, and it can eventually impact how you feel. After seeing other people do the same, TikTok user @barenutritionhealth swore off making comments like “I’m dead”, “I’m deceased”, and “I’m so stupid”. Self-deprecating phrases may be meant as a joke, she noted, but your brain can’t tell the difference. The more you say something, the more real it becomes. This is the idea behind manifestation and the law of attraction, aka the notion that positive thoughts bring you positive things, and vice versa. It’s based on neuroscience, and therapists agree there’s something to it.

“The words we say in our head or out loud definitely feed back into our brain and affect how we think, feel, and see the world,” says Justin Paulsen, MCP, RCC, ABS, a psychotherapist at Westland Therapy Group. That’s why it’s worth it to be more intentional with your words. Here’s what to know about officially giving up phrases like “I’m dead” — and what to say instead.

Why Your Words Matter

According to Paulsen, your brain connects neurons to create pathways of thinking every time you speak. He relates the pathways to rivers: “If you think of your thoughts and words as the water, you’re essentially flowing more water down that self-deprecating pathway every time you speak negatively about yourself,” Paulsen explains. “This creates a larger river with more and more negative thoughts flowing through it.”

TikTok users who are swearing off negative phrasing point to the reticular activating system (RAS) in the brain, which filters out info that it deems unnecessary. “If you use the analogy of the rivers, the RAS will spend most of its time filtering the information that fits into the larger rivers and sends less information to the small, dry rivers,” Paulsen explains. “When you spend so much time thinking negative thoughts, it trains your brain to show you more negativity and less positivity.”

This can lead to the law of attraction theory. As Paulsen says, you may wind up missing positive opportunities that show up since your brain has been programmed to focus on the negative aspects of your life. “The opposite can also be true — when you consciously push yourself to speak positively and focus on positive things around you, you strengthen and grow your positive neuropathways, training them to notice and focus on the positive opportunities that present themselves,” he says

It’s the same idea behind the lucky girl syndrome, where your words become your reality. If you want to feel good about yourself and attract luck, you need to be on the lookout for it. And one way to do that is by training yourself to speak positively.

How To Use Positive Language

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It’s fine to be real and talk about negative experiences, but constantly using negative remarks like “I’m a mess” or “I’m terrible” or “I’m dying” do add up — and, according to TikToker @barenutritionhealth, they can start to send negative energy your way. To flip the script, she recommends saying the same thing but with a positive twist. If you’re laughing really hard, for instance, you can say “I’m living for that” instead of “I’m dying.” If you’re sick, you can say “I’m healing. I’m getting over a cold.” If you make a mistake, you can simply say “I”m still learning.”

Subtle changes like these make all the difference, says therapist Lindsey Ferris, MS, LMFTA. “Words matter,” she tells Bustle. “Using more self-compassionate words can help you soften your negative and critical voice and begin to see things in a different light.” It’s a small change that makes a big difference, so why not give it a try?

Studies referenced:

Arguinchona, JH. (2022). In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan–. PMID: 31751025.

Cascio, CN. (2016). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv136.

Sources:

Justin Paulsen, MCP, RCC, ABS, psychotherapist

Lindsey Ferris, MS, LMFTA, therapist

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