Stress: Selective and negative thinking

Selective thinking

Focusing on one particular part of a whole picture can be a sign of selective thinking and this can be as negative  as over-generalizing.

If all you concentrate on is one task or event, then everything else is ignored, often to your detriment – that task or event dominates your thinking to such an extent that anxiety, worry and fatigue are bound to follow.

Sally’s local school was holding a charity softball game. There would also be stalls selling home-made cakes and preserves, and a clown show to keep the children happy during the game. Despite all the things that were happening during the day, all sally could think of was the teas she had to make. Because that was all she could think about the teas eventually became a source of stress and ruined her whole day.

Strategy for change

Think about an event or occasion that you find stressful and notice whether or not you have one recurring thought or whether a wider range of considerations come to your mind. If you tend to have the former, then you are selectively thinking. Start to broaden your thinking by taking account of other things. This will help you keep everything in a healthy perspective.

Negative thinking

A negative outlook on the circumstances and events in  your life can make you feel worried, guilty and can even destroy your self-confidence. Remaining positive when situations seem to be conspiring against you can be difficult but being positive does help you to retain feelings of being in control. Being able to change a negative thought into a positive one is an important stress management technique.

Strategies for change

Make a list of the recurring negative thoughts that enter your mind. You might find it helpful to start by making a list of the negative  emotions that you are aware of and then identifying the thinking behind them. For example, if you feel depressed at work, it may be due to you thinking that you are inadequate because you are so busy you cannot do your job properly.

Now read back over your list. Think about each item carefully and change it to a more acceptable, positive statement. For instance, you might say, ‘I am good enough and I can do my job effectively.’

Affirmations – simple statements that you repeat to yourself – provide an effective way of reprogramming yourself to think positively. One famous affirmation made by the French pioneer of auto-suggestion, Emile Coue, is ‘Every day, in every way, I am becoming better and better,‘ but there is no reason why you should not make up an affirmation which you think is especially appropriate for you. You could say, ‘The more I learn, the most I understand’ or even just, ‘I am a good person.’ Repeat the positive statement you create every day when you wake up and before you go to bed. Affirmations work, but only as a gradual process so do not expect dramatic changes overnight.

Negative thinking can affect how you deal with particularly stressful situations that you have to experience in your life on a one-off or regular basis. The emotional turmoil created by these situations can be very debilitating and can, over a period of time, develop into a phobia. ‘Desensitisation’ is an effective technique that helps to reduce the impact such events have on you. Here is how to use it.

Focus on a situation that is or has been particularly stressful for you, a business meeting, for example.  Write down an account of the event from start to finish. Include as much detail as you can and be as descriptive as possible. If commuting is stressful for you then your list might look like this.

Desensitisation – commuting

• I feel panicky as I approach the station
• My breathing becomes shallow as I buy my ticket

• I feel fearful just standing on the crowded platform

• My fear intensifies as I hear the train approach and I worry about being pushed off the platform

• My heart pounds as I get on the train

• Standing in the crowded compartment makes me feel breathless and I feel dizzy when the train stops in tunnels

• By the time I get to work I feel positively exhausted

Once you have written down every element of your stressful situation, rank each statement according to how stressful it feels. Start with 1 being the least stressful.  Rewrite your list in rank order, starting with number 1.

Now sit somewhere quiet. If you feel tense, use the relaxation audio to help you unwind. Really try to become aware of your body as the tension slips away and, as you start to relax, pay attention to the depth of your breathing. When you are feeling comfortable and easy, think about the first item on your list.

As you do, hold on to that feeling of relaxation.  If necessary, listen to the audio again and try running over the first point on your list once more – it could take a number of attempts to remain relaxed while thinking about the first point, so do not give up.

Once you have mastered point number 1, move on to number 2. As before, the object is to remain relaxed while thinking about the stressful situation. Repeat the procedure until you can remain calm and relaxed while thinking about points 1 and 2.

Practise this technique over the next few days or weeks until you are able to relive the whole scene in your mind while remaining relaxed.

Relaxation in real situations

The next step is put the sense of relaxation into practice for real. Relax yourself before confronting the situation and try to regain the feeling of peace whenever you feel yourself beginning to panic. If you do begin to feel panicky, deepen your breathing and push your abdomen out when you breathe in – this simple breathing exercise can be a great help as it removes stomach tension.

Visualisation – which is sometimes called visual imagination, is another useful way of dealing with negative thoughts. Unpleasant memories of an event that went disastrously wrong in the past can make similar occasions in the present stressful. For example, if every time you have to present the monthly sales figures reminds you of the time when you had to present a project at school and everyone, including the teacher, laughed at you, the chances are you will find presentations particularly stressful occasions. Before you know it you are sweating and your mouth has dried up, making the presentation even more difficult. In a situation like this, visualisation can help.

Start by recalling the unpleasant memory. Keep it in your mind and really focus on the scene. Then begin to change the image. Try making the picture bigger or smaller – there will come a time when the scene looks so totally ridiculous, it may even make you laugh. Imagine that you are using the zoom lens on a camera to send your picture off into the distance or to bring it up close – distant images tend to weaken distressing feelings. Now turn your picture into bright colours, then hazy grey images – this can also help to weaken negative feelings.

Finding ways to change negative memories can help to lessen the impact that they have on your life at present – you cannot change events from your past but  you can reduce their damaging, long-lasting effects. Keep working on these images and you will increase the control that you have over your emotions.

In the next section we’ll learn how to cope with change.

Learn to cope with change >>

Text Copyright © Alix Needham
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