Do you see the tree or the field?
Ever got into a negative thought spiral? We all have – certainly I have gone down my fair share of them ever! Something happens that triggers a toxic thought pattern. We become increasingly fixated on it, and all of our feedback seems to validate the experience.
As humans, we are biased towards the negative – not in any bad sense, but as a protective strategy. Your body and mind are looking out for you – keeping you alive is their number one priority. Things that happen to us that hurt us take on more significance than the wonderful things for this very reason – we are primed to see threat. The memory of hurt is laid down in our nervous system and mind so that when we unconsciously or consciously experience something similar, a whole cascade of reactions occur. Before you know it, you’re freaking out.
If you can recall the last time something like this happened to you, then you will remember how hard it is to break the cycle by simply trying to think your way out of it. I have been trying to understand this process for a while, and to find strategies to deal with it. Do Hard Things by Steve Magness (see this month’s reading list) offers a number of solutions. For the purposes of this article, I will cover just one of them.
Zooming In and Zooming Out
Magness describes the difference between a narrow and a wide focus. Cognitive narrowing is hugely beneficial when we need to focus on the task in hand. It helps with goal attainment. It is linked to our eyes – when they stop dancing from side to side, we focus in on a very narrow band of the world, and our attention goes with it. Whilst this narrowing can be extremely beneficial when we need to get something done or when we are in a moment of heightened stress, it can be counterproductive when it comes to negative spirals or rumination.
Imagine someone innocently says something to you, but rather then hearing the intention behind their words, you become unconsciously triggered. “You’re looking well” in your twisted interpretation becomes “you’ve put on weight”. If you narrow your focus, you become so fixated that you can’t break it. In the case of rumination, we then amplify the negative thoughts and doubts that circle in our head. We replay it over and over again. The narrowing prevents us from considering any other explanations, such as that we might have got it wrong.
If narrowing our focus makes it worse, then obviously the solution is to broaden it. Our brain processes information in two ways. Firstly, it works from the top down, predicting, drawing on our previous experiences and expectations. And secondly, bottom up, where it interprets the sensory information feeding in from the body – for example, the rate of breathing rises, and the brain interprets that and responds. The top down approach is the narrowing. The bottom up approach is the broadening. At any time, our brain is using a combination of the two – which one is dominant will determine if we are narrow or broaden.
How to Broaden
So, what practical strategies can we use to zoom out when a narrow focus becomes a liability? Magness gives six suggestions.
Change your focus of attention. Rather than sitting, staring at a screen (portrait mode), get outside and shift your gaze to panorama mode. Stare at a wide horizon, or even just soften your gaze to a blurry state. Pay attention to the periphery of your vision.
Broad thinking is creative. I write a lot – to get stuff on paper I need to shut out distraction, and narrow my focus. However, after a while, this stifles my creativity and my writing becomes pedestrian. A cognitive shift to broad thinking means to move away from the obvious to less obvious connections. When I’m writing that means coming up with creative descriptions of ordinary things, or innovative ideas, making connections I may not previously have seen. Break a rumination cycle by introducing even just weird ideas, to disrupt the narrowing.
Mood, thinking, perception etc follow action. Move your body and pay attention to the sensations that arise to broaden your focus. Different movements also narrow or broaden – sitting forward on a chair, narrows, lounging back broadens. Walking freely, taking in all the sights and sounds is much broader than running up a hill.
Imagine the future and consider how you will feel about this situation in a day, a month, a year. Remind yourself that it will pass, and contextualise with times you have felt the same.
Switching to the third person puts distance between us and what has happened – this can involve our inner dialogue or journaling.
To get back to my writing example, when I need to focus, I close the door, switch off social media and my phone, and face the screen. When I need to get my creativity flowing, I take a long walk be it in nature or through London. Or I get in my car and drive while listening to music. Adjust your environment to reflect whether you want to narrow or broaden your focus.
It isn’t that one type of focus is better than the other – we need both to function efficiently. Develop the capacity to zoom in when you need to focus, and to zoom out when you need to innovate or get perspective. Develop narrow focus in meditation by holding your attention on a particular point. Practice broadening by developing interoception, the bottom up awareness of sensation. For more information check out Do Hard Things by Steve Magness.