Healing From Childhood TraumaAnxiety/DepressionParenting/Having ChildrenRomantic RelationshipsCareer/AdultingPep TalksSelf-CareMisc

Browse By Category

Relational Trauma: Why am I so negative?

Senior woman looking unhappy sitting alone in the kitchen wondering, Why am I so negative?

Explore the link between relational trauma and persistent negativity, and learn effective strategies to foster a positive mindset.

Senior woman looking unhappy sitting alone in the kitchen wondering, Why am I so negative?

Relational Trauma: Why am I so negative?

“The weirdest thing about a mind is that you can have the most intense things going on in there, and no one else can see them. The world shrinks or expands according to your state of mind. And sometimes the mind is so noisy, it is hard to hear the world at all.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.

Let me begin this essay by saying that I have yet to meet someone from a relational trauma background who sees the world as “Glass Half Full” versus “Glass Half Empty.”

If you do come from a relational trauma background and yet still have an overwhelming optimistic attitude, that’s amazing.

Also, please message me so I can say I know there’s at least one person out there like this.

But for the rest of us, for the majority of us who have experienced relational trauma, we may live with a persistent sense of discontent and possibly a deeply ingrained negativity bias.

Because of this, the question, “Why am I so negative?”  is likely something we’ve asked ourselves or others have asked us many times over the years.

It’s a question people have asked me before, “Why are you so negative?”

When I was younger, that kind of questioning used to make me feel ashamed.

Now, it makes me a little angry and self-protectively defensive.

Look, developmental trauma is not an equal-opportunity affliction.

Nor are its impacts.

Coming from a relational trauma history makes us different than our non-traumatized peers.

That’s the first point I really want you to hear as we discuss the question, “Why am I so negative?”

So negative compared to who?

Compared to your non-traumatized peers or your peers from relational trauma backgrounds who may have endured comparable life experiences as you?

I don’t like comparison in general, but if you’re going to compare yourself to anyone when asking the question, “Why am I so negative?” compare yourself to a comparable peer group, for starters.

Okay, now, with that hopeful validation and normalization out of the way, let’s really unpack how and why relational trauma/developmental trauma experiences can create negativity in our brains and shape how we see the world.

Do you come from a childhood trauma background?

Take this 5-minute quiz to find out (and more importantly, what to do about it if you do.)

How Developmental Trauma Primes Our Brains For Negativity

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. ” – Bessel van der Kolk

Understanding why negative thoughts persist after developmental trauma involves exploring the incredibly complex neural landscape.

Keeping with the analogy of landscaping, the brain of individuals who have experienced trauma resembles a chaotic terrain.

Prolonged stress during formative years disrupts the delicate balance of the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis, leading to significant changes in cortisol levels.

These altered cortisol levels strongly affect the amygdala, a key player in our emotional responses, shaping our perceptions and reactions to the world.

The amygdala, a key player in the brain’s emotional system, becomes extra active after trauma.

This increased activity triggers a higher level of fear and anxiety, making the person more prone to viewing situations as threats, even if they’re not.

This heightened sensitivity to potential dangers can become the brain’s default setting, fueling negative thinking and reactions.

At the same time, chronic stress negatively impacts the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational thought and functions like planning and decision-making.

The neural connections in this region may weaken, making it challenging for individuals to manage their emotions, think clearly, and respond logically to their surroundings.

This difficulty reinforces negative thought patterns as the person struggles to confront or understand their fears and anxieties.

Furthermore, the hippocampus, essential for memory formation and recall, can also be affected.

Prolonged stress may reduce hippocampal volume, impacting the ability to create new memories and distorting past recollections.

This distortion can reinforce negative self-perceptions and worldviews, as traumatic memories are more easily remembered than positive ones.

In addition to all of this, neural pathways, akin to footprints in the sand, are carved and recarved by our thought patterns.

For those of us with developmental trauma, the loop of negativity—negative thought triggers, fixed automatic responses, internalization of a negative narrative, and reinforcement of negative beliefs—becomes a highway, a default mode hardly noticed as its worn grooves take us down familiar, yet crushing, mental journeys.

Okay, so that’s a lot of information that hopefully helps you (compassionately) understand how and why your brain may be predisposed to negativity if you come from a developmental trauma background.

But if you’re asking the question, “Why am I so negative?” chances are high you’re not just clinically curious about why this is; you’re likely looking to change the predisposition you have towards negative thinking.

So, let’s explore four evidence-based exercises and a powerful psychotherapeutic option that can truly help to rewire your brain and support a reduction in chronic negative thinking.

Rewiring the Brain For Positivity: Evidence-Based Interventions

“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” – Lucy Larcom

While neuroscience paints a somber picture, it also portrays a picture of hope—specifically because of the malleability of the human brain.

The process of rewiring the brain is not easy, and it’s not quick and it’s certainly not one-size-fits all but, it IS possible thanks to the concept of neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, describes how different life experiences create and reorganize neural pathways in our brain.

These neural connections, for better or worse, are what form our thought and behavior patterns as we move through our day-to-day lives.

But the good news is this: the brain is plastic and can change up until the day we die if we learn new skills, memorize new information, or provide ourselves with new experiences.

Each time you have a repeated experience, whether negative or positive be they thoughts or words about yourself, you deepen the neural grooves in your brain.

When you unintentionally or intentionally create a different experience for yourself, you create new neural pathways.

New positive experiences and different kinds of self-talk create new, perhaps more functional neural pathways.

Here are some options as to how we can actively support the formation of more positive neural pathways in our own brains:

Self-Directed Practices:

Reshaping the neural pathways that cause chronic negative thinking may seem tough, but with regular practice, anyone can develop a more optimistic mindset.

The scientifically proven exercises below provide practical ways to encourage positive thinking and boost resilience.

Engage in “Best-Possible-Self” Mental Imagery

Spend 15 minutes every day envisioning your best future self, focusing on personal, relational, and professional aspects. Research shows this practice can boost optimism and mood, especially when combined with regular journaling about these inspiring visions.

For example: Spend 15 minutes in the morning in quiet reflection, envisioning your ideal future across personal, professional, and relational dimensions.

Visualize achieving your career ambitions, where work aligns with passion, leading to genuine fulfillment.

Extend this vision to personal growth, picturing yourself engaging in meaningful hobbies and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Imagine enriching relationships with family and friends, marked by presence and deep connection.

This practice isn’t mere daydreaming; it’s a strategic approach to crafting a comprehensive vision of your future.

Regular engagement can motivate current decisions and actions, making this envisioned future more attainable.

Practice Gratitude Exercises

Make time each day to reflect on the things that you are grateful for. This can be achieved through gratitude journaling or a simple mental acknowledgment of three daily blessings. Research has shown that gratitude exercises can boost optimism, mental and physical health, thus promoting overall well-being.

How this can look: Start each day by recognizing three specific things you’re grateful for, focusing on genuine and perhaps overlooked aspects of daily life. Here’s a concise, imaginal list:

  1. Unexpected help: Gratefulness for the stranger who helped you pick up items you dropped in the elevator on the way up to the offices. It’s a reminder of the small acts of kindness in the world.
  2. The safety and health of your kiddo: Acknowledging and appreciating that the person you love most in the world is well and safe is a powerful gratitude practice.
  3. New delicious distraction: Thankfulness for the release of great new shows on Netflix to disappear into and consciously disconnect from your adult reality is a wonderful and totally legitimate thing to be grateful for.

This practice, grounded in research, fosters an optimistic outlook and bolsters well-being by encouraging you to notice and value the positive, yet often unnoticed, moments and elements in your life.

Adopt Mindfulness and Meditation Practices

Incorporate mindfulness meditation into your daily routine to bring your focus back to the present, thus reducing the habit of negative thinking.

For instance, spend a few minutes each morning on focused breathing exercises.

Sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and pay attention to the rhythm of your breath—how the air feels entering and leaving your body, the rise and fall of your chest.

This simple practice, supported by ample research, can gradually retrain your brain towards positivity by diminishing patterns of negative rumination and increasing awareness of the current moment.

Regular Aerobic Exercise

Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to enhance mood and cognitive functions, including optimism.

This improvement is partly due to increased blood flow to the brain, supporting neuroplasticity and angiogenesis, essential for learning and brain health.

Regular physical activity also boosts levels of proteins such as BDNF, VEGF, and IGF-1, which are crucial for brain cell survival and growth.

Furthermore, combining physical exercise with mental activities like meditation can alleviate depression symptoms and improve cognitive control, contributing to a more positive outlook on life

EMDR can rewire chronic negative thinking.

In addition to evidence-backed personal practices, the evidence-based psychotherapy Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a power tool for those seeking to reshape their thinking, especially those of us from relational trauma backgrounds.

EMDR is known for effectively addressing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and offers benefits for various mental health issues marked by persistent negative thoughts.

It works on the idea that unprocessed memories lead to negative emotions, using an eight-step therapy involving recalling distressing images and bilateral sensory input.

This method helps restructure the brain processes related to trauma, reducing negative effects and fostering a more positive mindset.

Research indicates EMDR’s broad effectiveness in tackling chronic negative thoughts, proving beneficial for conditions like psychosis, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and chronic pain.

EMDR, with its emphasis on addressing past trauma that can lead to current psychological issues, is a particularly helpful therapeutic choice for those with persistent negative thinking rooted in unresolved childhood traumatic experiences, guiding them to shift towards a more positive, resilient mindset.

Wrapping up.

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.” – Margaret Thatcher

To wrap up, let’s remember that, put plainly, early bad experiences can really affect how you think.

This might make you see things in a negative way, experience chronic levels of discontent, or expect the worst all the time.

If you’re wondering why it’s hard to shake off these negative thoughts, it’s because of the way trauma changes the brain.

It’s not that you’re a “Debby Downer;” it’s that parts of your brain (the parts that deal with emotions, decision making and memory) may be architected in a way that predisposes you to negativity based on your early childhood experiences.

But, despite the architecting and impacts of your early experiences, change is still possible.

Our brains can change. Literally up until the day we die.

You can do things like imagine your best future, be thankful for what you have, pay attention to the present, meditate, and exercise regularly to help re-architect and re-wire your brain think more positively.

And, on top of this, therapies like EMDR are especially good for people who’ve been through relational trauma histories.

Now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Did you resonate with this piece? Have you struggled with chronic negative thinking? What exercises or practices have supported you as you’ve worked to rewire your brain?

If you feel so inclined, please leave a message so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your share and wisdom.

Finally, if you would like help recovering from your own relational trauma history and rewiring your brain, I would strongly encourage you to work with a licensed mental health professional who is also trained in an evidence-based trauma modality (like EMDR).

If you live in either California or Florida, and you would like tailored, expert support, either myself or my talented team of relational trauma clinicians at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – can be of support to you. 

Please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to an relational trauma therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).

And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for relational trauma recovery.

Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if you come from a relational trauma history and may deal with chronic negative thinking as a result, I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a relational trauma background?” 

It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of relational trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m journeying through my own relational trauma recovery journey and general adulthood. 

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

So thank you. 

And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie


References Section

  1. Cranston, C. (2014). A Review of the Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Cortisol on the Regulation of the HPA Axis: Implications for the Development and Maintenance of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The New School psychology bulletin, 11, 1-13.
  2. Shin, L. (2009). The Amygdala in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. , 319-334. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-60327-329-9_15.
  3. Sripada, R., King, A., Welsh, R., Garfinkel, S., Wang, X., Sripada, C., & Liberzon, I. (2012). Neural Dysregulation in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence for Disrupted Equilibrium Between Salience and Default Mode Brain Networks. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74, 904–911. https://doi.org/10.1097/PSY.0b013e318273bf33.
  4. Rahman, M., Callaghan, C., Kerskens, C., Chattarji, S., & O’Mara, S. (2016). Early hippocampal volume loss as a marker of eventual memory deficits caused by repeated stress. Scientific Reports, 6. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep29127.
  5. Simpkins, C., & Simpkins, A. (2013). Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis: Changing Moment-by-Moment. , 165-174. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-4842-6_13.
  6. Meevissen, Y., Peters, M., & Alberts, H. (2011). Become more optimistic by imagining a best possible self: effects of a two week intervention.. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 42 3, 371-8 . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2011.02.012.
  7. Boggiss, A., Consedine, N., Brenton-Peters, J., Hofman, P., & Serlachius, A. (2020). A systematic review of gratitude interventions: Effects on physical health and health behaviors.. Journal of psychosomatic research, 135, 110165 . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.110165.
  8. Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis.. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57 1, 35-43 . https://doi.org/10.1111/J.2042-7166.2003.TB04008.X.
  9. Maass, A., Düzel, S., Brigadski, T., Goerke, M., Becke, A., Sobieray, U., Neumann, K., Lövdén, M., Lindenberger, U., Bäckman, L., Braun-Dullaeus, R., Ahrens, D., Heinze, H., Müller, N., Lessmann, V., Sendtner, M., & Düzel, E. (2016). Relationships of peripheral IGF-1, VEGF and BDNF levels to exercise-related changes in memory, hippocampal perfusion and volumes in older adults. NeuroImage, 131, 142-154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.10.084.
  10. Valiente-Gómez, A., Moreno-Alcázar, A., Treen, D., Cedrón, C., Colom, F., Pérez, V., & Amann, B. L. (2017). EMDR beyond PTSD: A Systematic Literature Review. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1668. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01668
  11. Maxwell, J. (2003). The Imprint of Childhood Physical and Emotional Abuse: A Case Study on the Use of EMDR to Address Anxiety and a Lack of Self-Esteem. Journal of Family Violence, 18, 281-293. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1025165227590.
Medical Disclaimer

Reader Interactions


    Leave a comment

    Your email address will not be published.

  1. Donna says

    I follow these posts regularly and always find them incredibly helpful. Thank you! This is the first post where the question did not resonate with me. Many people comment on my positive attitude and optimism. But as I read the post, I came to see that my seemingly positive attitude is just another form of protection – another way to manage that negativity bias. A way to make light of the trauma – to try to deny its impact on my life. I don’t expect the worst, but I do have a really difficult time letting go of my mistakes. I’m looking forward to implementing the practices you describe. This healing journey isn’t easy but it is surely worthwhile. Many thanks to you!

Do you come from a relational trauma background?

Take this quiz to find out (and more importantly, what to do about it if you do.)

Get in Touch.