When unsettling, or out of the ordinary events happen to us, we often start thinking in extremes. This is known as a cognitive distortion. A familiar one is picking up a single negative detail in a sequence of events and thinking exclusively about it, dwelling on it, so that the vision of all reality, the whole picture, becomes negative.
At best, focusing on an important detail is a useful process, though it can become a ‘tunnel vision’, as we focus on one part of the situation and forget about the positive parts.
For instance, you go out with your partner for a night at the movies, followed by a lovely dinner, meet some great friends later for a drink, and so far the night is wonderful. And then and there, you and your partner disagree on whether or not to go home. You insist on going because you have an early day and s/he is upset about this. S/he stews on this disagreement on the way home.
All the positive experiences of a long night are forgotten as s/he focuses on that bit. It is likely that s/he will experience the negative feelings that go along with it.
In another example, you giving a presentation at work and you make a single remark which you think in insight were not right. Even though the presentation went well with good outcomes, you spend the rest of the day berating yourself for your single mistake. A colleague later in the day compliments you on the presentation, but you don’t pay attention to it.
You are singling out one detail to the exclusion of all else, overlooking what went well.
As you think of a similar past situations, where you were the one stewing, try this:
- Describe the situation, and how your mood was right before it
- Place the situation in the context of your whole day
- Describe what thoughts went through your mind
- Describe the feelings you experienced because of your thinking
- Describe what could have been an alternative thought about the situation (for instance, after the above examples, “well, it is disappointing to go home early but it was a great night”, and “I’m annoyed at myself for this mistake, but the presentation was good overall and I was complimented for it”)
- Think of the feelings you might experience as a result of your alternative thought.
Once you get familiar with this sequence, try applying steps 1-4 when a situation arises that may result in your brooding over it. It is likely that you will immediately generate more positive responses.