What is Perceptual Narrowing and Why is it Important?

In psychology, we have a term called perceptual narrowing. Essentially, it is our tendency to narrow our intentional focus when we begin to feel worried or panicked about something. It is why we will often get stuck in a rumination or worry. As a result of perceptual narrowing, we will often miss information that may be useful to us in looking at the situation more objectively.

Perceptual narrowing tends to happen when we are stressed; we focus in on one thing as our heart rate increases and our breathing shallows. If for example, I am trying to get out the door and I feel rushed,  I focus on my fear of being late. My perception narrows, I have less access to my peripheral vision, and before you know it, I have dropped something, forgotten something and probably spilled something. It is usually at this point that I take a deep breath and remind myself to slow down.

It is important to recognize that perceptual narrowing is part of our system’s response to stress. I suppose when we lived on the plains, if a big storm was coming, we would have needed to focus all of our attention on securing our safety. In today’s world, many of our panicked thoughts are perceived ones and we end up going to worst case scenario thinking – our increased stress response induces perceptual narrowing, leaving us feeling scattered and sometimes frayed.

We can; however, begin to recognize when this is happening and remind ourselves to pause, slow down, focus on our breathing. We can use self-talk to “take it one moment at a time,” and to “look at the facts.” This will allow our rational voice to weigh in on what first appears to be a runaway worry.

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