Post-event processing

Post-event processing is a term from social anxiety research. It is used to describe the combination of worry, rumination, and self-criticism an individual with social anxiety experiences after a social event. In, we seem to be using it to refer to the after-effects of every anxious situation. Consider it our growing shared language. 

The repetitive negative thinking patterns that occur during post-event processing include concepts that we’ve discussed over the last several weeks, specifically worryruminationmental compulsions, and self-criticism. The concept of post-event processing is useful because of its ability to increase your motivation to get distance from unhelpful thoughts and feelings. 

As a reminder, the first step to the therapeutic attitude of acceptance is expecting and labeling an experience as an anxiety or OCD experience. In doing so, you’re saying:

  • This is a false alarm, not a real problem for me. 
  • I accept that this is a part of my experience right now. I’m not going to pretend like this doesn’t happen to me. 
  • I have compassion for myself for having this experience. Given that I have this experience, I should respond to it as effectively as I can. 

When you are able to pull up this attitude, you will also be able to head into an anxious episode and predict: 

Anticipatory anxiety– Doing nothing to resist it or make it go away is powerful and intentional stance. Just like other parts of the anxious pattern, every time you label and actively accept what you’re experiencing, your mind is less likely to associate that experience as something to fear. The anticipatory anxiety may not dissipate at this moment, but you’re setting yourself up for success in future moments.

  • Self-talk: “Anticipatory anxiety is a feeling, not a fact, threat, message, or prediction. Anticipatory anxiety predicts my past, not my future. It doesn’t predict situational anxiety unless I believe it. Anticipatory anxiety means that I’m doing something important, values-based, challenging, and consistent with who I want to become. I’m practicing staying with my anticipatory anxiety without adding second fear.” 

Situational anxiety– Attend anxiety-provoking situation (which may or may not provoke anxiety at that moment). Focus attention on the situation, rather than whether or not you feel anxious and what it means or doesn’t mean.

  • Self-talk: “Excitement and nervousness feel the same. I feel excited that I’m challenging myself to grow beyond my comfort zone. It’s time to focus on my task, rather than my sensations, feelings, or thoughts. Now is a good time to set a behavioral goal — something I can do with my arms and legs —  rather than a goal for what I should think or feel.” 

Post-event processing– Expect post-event processing and reframe it as the consequence of being tired and sensitized after an exposure rather than a threat. If you said or did something about which you actually feel embarrassed or guilty, assess whether there is any way to problem solve (for instance, by correcting an error or apologizing). 

You can’t make mistakes or offend people if you don’t try, but you also can’t grow and change if you don’t try. Putting forth effort towards anything puts you at risk for feeling judged, rejected, embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, and regretful. The most reasonable stance is to surrender to these possibilities in order to move towards a rich, full, and meaningful life. 

  • Self-talk: “My body is sensitized and my mind is sticky because I just did something that is anxiety provoking. I do not need to judge the outcome of what just happened. I am going to bring up the conditions of pride and stay with them, so that I have the opportunity to shift this moment from one that makes me feel stuck, to one that heals me.” 

Common worries during post-event processing: 

“What if I said or did something wrong? What if I said something boring, stupid, or offensive? What is that person going to think of me because of what I said or did?” 

“I feel fine now, but what if I start thinking about this again? What if it ruins my night or my weekend? What if I can’t sleep because of it? What if I can’t concentrate because of it? What if I fall into an anxiety or depressive spiral? How do I know that I’m not going to feel bad later and how do I know that I’ll be able to cope at that time?” 

Here’s some alternative self-talk to try: 

  • “I typically worry after situations like this. What if nothing is wrong and I just have leftover sensitivity? Is it just anxiety and uncertainty that I feel or are there other feelings here? Where are those feelings in my body? What sensations come along with those feelings? If I were going to describe the sensations that make up anxiety as though I am teaching a child, how would I describe what the sensations are? I am human and every human has these sensations. How can I take care of myself right now?”

Common rumination during post-event processing: 

“Why did I say or do what I did? What is wrong with me? Will this ever stop happening to me? Why do I have this feeling? Is this because of that thing that happened in the past to me? What if I’m inherently broken? Does this mean that I’m hopeless, worthless, and unlovable?” 

Here’s some alternative self-talk to try: 

  • “I typically ruminate after situations like this. What if I didn’t actually make a mistake, but rather my mind is just sticky? I’m noticing thoughts of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness. I wonder what my feeling is under that? Where is that feeling in my body? I am human and every human has this feeling. How can I take care of myself right now?”

Common mental compulsions for those with OCD during post-event processing: 

“I feel really anxious and uncertain. I can feel my mind is scanning everything that just happened to me to make sure one of my feared outcomes hasn’t occurred or will not occur? What if I made a mistake? What if I hurt someone? What if I touched something that will contaminate me or someone else? What if I was thinking something I shouldn’t have been thinking and that means I’m creepy, weird, or a bad person?” 

“I feel fine right now. What does that mean? Does it mean I don’t actually care about the content areas I fear and what would does that mean? What if I feel anxious later and I can’t handle it?  Oh no! Now I’m anxious. What does that mean? Did I do something wrong?”

Here’s some alternative self-talk to try: 

  • “I typically have compulsive replay after situations like this. What if I didn’t actually make a mistake, but rather my mind is just sticky? It will take some time for my mind to stop buying into this replay as something that is helpful to me. Can I bring the compulsive replay along with during my day as if it’s a Tamagotchi? (Wait, Tamagotchis require care. Treat it more like a pet rock.) It’s hard to concentrate when I have replay in the background. As I choose to redirect my attention, I’m surrendering to the possibility that these thoughts will intrude and cause me distress. I’m choosing not to respond as though the intrusions require problem-solving or attention. I am human and every human sometimes has intrusions. How can I take care of myself right now?”

Common self-criticism during post-event processing: 

“I can’t believe that made me anxious! I’m better than that! I should have had the skills to not get anxious. I should be able to respond better when I do. Now I’m worried, ruminating, and mental compulsing. I’m never going to get over this and I’m never going to get my life back. This is hopeless.” 

“I can’t believe I actually said or did that! OR I can’t believe I didn’t say or do that! Why am I such an idiot? Why can’t I do anything right? I’m never going to change if I keep this up?” 

Here’s some alternative self-talk to try: 

  • “I typically have self-criticism after situations like this. Let me orient my thinking toward what I did right. Where do I see growth in myself compared to some point in the past? Where am I continuing to get stuck? What thinking patterns or behavioral patterns are still common for me, such that I’m prone to get stuck? I’m choosing act as though I am proud of what just happened. I tried something and therefore I gave myself the chance to learn and grow.” 

In Community Time, we’ll discuss your post-event processing, where you tend to get stuck, and how you can practice shifting your self-talk.