Negative Reinforcement: Avoiding an aversive stimulus.

Lonely young woman feeling depressed and stressed sitting in the dark bedroom, Negative emotion

One of the most powerful processes that guide behavior is found in how we learn to avoid negative experiences.  For better or for worse, the brain has been hardwired to focus on the negative, likely because it is more adaptive to be able to avoid negative outcomes than positive ones.  Which makes pragmatic sense: I don’t have to spend cognitive resources wondering what will happen if my commute to work tomorrow is uneventful.  I lie awake at night worrying that something will cause me to be late to work again, and what that would lead to, etc.

However, the brain also tends to be bad at making accurate predictions, and often assumes that things will be worse than they usually are.  Moreover, even imagining that we have avoided a negative outcome is very reinforcing and becomes a learning process.  For example, remember as a child how agitated you could become thinking about the monster that lurked under your bed.  Even imagining danger can change our physiology (e.g., increased heart rate, muscle tension), and I’m sure most of us can recall how upset we could become imagining what the monster would do to us if we were foolish enough to carelessly leave a foot out from under the safety of the covers.

In this example, the bed covers become a literal and figurative “safety blanket.”  If we feel even a little safer hiding under the blankets, we experience the feeling of negative reinforcement – or relief – and this relief is strongly reinforcing!  Unfortunately, this imagined escape results in two, largely unconscious, conclusions.  The first is that there really is a monster under the bed!  I’ll explain.  Even when you were very young, when asked directly you would likely deny that there was an actual monster; however, the relief convinces you that there must be something monstruous under your bed – or why would you feel relief having escaped under your covers?  

The second conviction is that hiding under your covers is the best solution (again, because of the relief).  Before you dove for safety under the cover, the trajectory of your anxiety was increasing more and more as your imagination drove up your heart rate, and your increased heart rate fueled more graphic imaginings of your untimely demise.  From the felt safety under the covers, you didn’t experience that, had you stayed exposed, eventually your fear would dissipate.  No, based on what you were feeling it was unclear what would have done you in first, the monster or a heart attack!

And remember, this is a learning process: the next night you don’t let the anxiety become as intense before retreating to safety, and less so the night after that, and by the end of the week you may just worm fully under the covers as soon as you crawl into bed.  Then, 10-15 years later, your partner asks you why you sleep with your head under the covers, and you reply that it’s just what you have always done.  We can often forget, if we are even aware, of how our efforts to avoid negative outcomes (even imagined ones) can influence our behavior.  

Negative reinforcement cycles are found in many aspects of human functioning.  They are foundational for understanding and treating anxiety disorders (e.g., Panic Disorder, PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder – or worry, etc.).  But I have also found this process helpful for explaining other aspects of individual and relational functioning.  For example, why couples continue to avoid difficult conversations and predict (often unfairly) that the partner would have responded poorly.  Or why putting off an undesirable task (i.e., procrastinating) makes it seem even more “monstrous” over time.   

Unfortunately, our brains are very good at coming up with very reasonable sounding excuses that help us to rationalize our avoidance, and then the felt relief (even if only a little) chimes in to further convince us that this was the right choice.  The process is often subtle but can result in creating major blockades that can feel insurmountable.  Clients frequently ask how they became so stuck, often assuming some traumatic event created this impasse, but it is often due to not being aware of our subconscious brain wanting to choose the easy path in the moment.  

If you want to consider how avoiding real or imagined issues in your life may be limiting you, consider making an appointment.  I enjoy helping people “look under the bed” to overcome fears and anxieties and live with courage and vibrancy.  Until then…

John