Are Your Hormones Making You Feel Negative?

Photo: Artem Zhushman

We tend to think of negativity in the form of negative emotions, such as sadness, anger, guilt, jealousy, and fear, among others. If stereotypes are to be believed, men will react differently than women when confronted with these types of emotions. But why is this? Could this stereotype be based on actual rational observation and science as opposed to the irrationality of bigotry, racism, hatred, or fear, which are not based in anything remotely objective or factual? Well, let’s dive into the science.

Proof that men are less likely to react to negative emotion has extended beyond stereotypes and casual observation in recent years. According to the article, “Do women experience negative emotions differently than men?” from ScienceDaily, a study published in 2015 provided insight on the subject. Researchers found that subtle differences in brain function affect how the sexes respond when presented with negative imagery.

Do hormones matter when it comes to positive thinking?

In the study, lead researcher Adrianna Mendrek and her colleagues studied how hormonal levels come into play and how these differences are reflected in the brains of men and women when it comes to negativity. How did they test this? Well, a blood test at the beginning of the study measured participants’ estrogen and testosterone levels, then, individuals were exposed to images that could potentially evoke positive, negative, or neutral emotions while undergoing MRI brain scans. They were also asked to assess their own emotional responses when viewing the images.

Women self-reported being more reactive to the emotional images as a whole, and the other data collected concurred. Higher estrogen levels, regardless of the person’s sex, almost always meant increased sensitivity to the images, while higher levels of testosterone were most frequently associated with lowered sensitivity.

Are the male brain and female brain really that different?

The study also indicated that the amygdala, a region of the brain known to act as a threat detector, also played a part. It was found that men had a stronger connection between the amygdala and the area of the brain that is involved in cognitive processes (including perception, emotions, and social interactions) creating a more analytical than emotional approach when processing negative emotions. But couldn’t this just be a response to cultural stereotypes? The article also noted that men, culturally, have a more analytical than emotional approach when facing negative emotions based on the participant’s gender identity. Mendrek explained that “there are both biological and cultural factors that modulate our sensitivity to negative situations in terms of emotions.” In other words, the answer lies somewhere between.

Can we rethink negativity and use it to be happier and more successful?

The good news is that the flip side of these so-called unwanted negative emotions is the ability to effectively utilize negativity to one’s own advantage. Negativity is required to problem solve, plan ahead, and successfully avoid danger. Imagine trying to do a budget, plan a family vacation, or fill out your taxes with only positivity.

Learning how to use negativity to one’s own advantage is the heart of what I call “negativity wisdom.” It involves understanding that some types of negativity are beneficial and, most importantly, being able to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” kinds of negativity. It is more important, however, to know how to turn the bad kind into something useful, regardless of gender. Here are three common types of bad negativity that can be made to work for you rather than against you:

1. Worry.

This type of negativity can be made useful by homing in on the stressor causing the worry and working out the “what if” scenarios. This may not always be the most comfortable approach, but changing worry into contingency planning is a constructive use of negativity. For example, if you’re worried about the health or safety of a loved one, it is much more constructive to change your worry into planning for all the potential outcomes. Consider what you can do to either help them, avoid the undesirable conclusion, or at least make their immediate path easier, less stressful, or more enjoyable.

2. Doubt.

This type of negativity must be counteracted with self-adoration, which means accepting oneself without conditions. It’s best to begin with a little self-love. It’s also important to note that you can only accept yourself as the person you are right now, in the present. Waiting for some future you that you think is more deserving of your appreciation will only allow the negativity of self-doubt linger.

3. Fear.

Sometimes fear can be motivating, but more often it’s debilitating. There have been entire books written on the subject of fear with most stating that fear must be overcome. This is simply not true. The best way to turn fear into a useful type of negativity is to simply accept that you’re afraid, plow through it anyway, and refocus the negativity of fear into addressing the situation or issue at hand. Negativity doesn’t need to be removed or replaced in order to work in your favor.

Development of negativity wisdom can take time, and the bad type of negativity can be difficult to assess and work through. Negativity doesn’t care whether you’re male or female, so the idea of who is less negative is not the right question. Maybe the question is, “Who uses negativity more effectively?”

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