Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Controlling Negativity During Stressful Times

Apr. 2, 2020

The nervous system has two parts: the fight-or-flight stress response and the rest-and-digest relaxation counterbalance which returns the brain and body to equilibrium. While the fight-or-flight system evolved to help us escape predators, the threats that activate the stress response in modern society are mostly psychological. A study of 2,000 participants in the UK, examining mental health the day before and the day after the national COVID-19 lockdown, found that the rates of anxiety (17%) and depression (16%) before the lockdown had increased to 35% reporting anxiety and 38% experiencing symptoms of depression the day after the social distancing mandate. In the days that followed the lockdown, the rates dropped to 20-24% with anxiety and 21-23% with depression. You can learn how to manage the psychological impact of the stress response.

Our brain’s stress response is largely automated, and its negativity bias leads us to imagine worst case scenarios and develop insecurities that can paralyze us. If you feel exhausted and ineffective, you might try four steps recommended by Dr. Shannon Irvine for taking control of that automated system:

  1. Identify Them: Acknowledge and name the thoughts you are having.
  2. Write Them Down: Pull the thoughts out of the subconscious by putting them on paper.
  3. Challenge Them: When we become aware of destructive thoughts, our brain naturally begins to refute them.
  4. Establish New Thoughts: Rewire your brain with an affirmation, that you remind yourself of daily, that reflects the truth. This process creates a new path of neurons that can disengage the automated negative thoughts initiated by the fight-or-flight stress response.

Takeaway: Challenge your automated negativity bias by rewiring your brain toward the truth. Taking a few minutes each day on this process can free up your brain to focus on your family and work.


Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die From Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking Can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791 (2013)

Initial Research Findings on COVID-19 and Mental Health in the UK, The University of Sheffield, Mar. 2020,

Briana Wiest, How to Rewire your Brain to Succeed During Uncertain Times, Forbes, Mar. 26, 2000,  

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