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Anxiety

Relieve Stress and Anxiety by Shifting Your Attention

How do we refocus our attention in ways that limit stress and anxiety?

Image by Jonas Svidras from Pixabay
Source: Image by Jonas Svidras from Pixabay

Fear is a biologically adaptive response. If we experience something threatening—like coming across a bear or mountain lion in the woods—fear activates our fight or flight response and helps us to escape safely. But now that we have TV, internet, and smartphones showing us things to be afraid of 24-7, our fear response can quickly go on overdrive, leading to longer-term stress and anxiety.

But this extra fear does more than just stress us out. Research suggests that our worrisome thoughts can interfere with working memory and attention, such that we have a more difficult time doing whatever it is that we’re doing. Moreover, our mental energy is not bottomless, meaning that we can use it up when we attempt to do things to decrease our anxiety. As a result, we’re left mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Luckily, there are ways to short circuit and reverse this stress and anxiety cycle. By shifting our attention, we can shift our thoughts. And by shifting our thoughts, we can shift our emotions. So what exactly do we do to shift our attention in ways that ultimately relieve stress and anxiety?

1. Focus your attention away from threats

Anxiety actually makes it easier for us to detect threats but harder for us to ignore threats. On the flip side, the more we focus on threatening things, the higher our level of anxiety is likely to be. That means that our attention—or what we focus on—can contribute to upward spirals of stress and anxiety. But that’s not such a bad thing because our attention is something we have some control over. In fact, research has shown that participants who did a task that directed their attention away from threats showed decreases in anxiety that lasted at least four months. That means we may be able to decrease our anxiety by making more concerted efforts to focus our attention away from the things that make us anxious.

2. Reframe emotionally ambiguous situations

Those of us who are anxious actually see the world differently than others. When we read an ambiguous scenario, we are more likely to interpret ambiguous (unclear) situations in a negative way. For example, if I’m anxious and I hear two coworkers say my name while chatting by the watercooler, I might assume they are saying something negative about me. But if I’m not anxious, I might assume they are just talking about my work projects or even saying something nice about me. This is just one example of how our minds can turn something ambiguous into something negative.

Research has also shown that non-anxious people expect positive outcomes from an ambiguous situation while anxious people do not. So when we’re anxious, we’re wearing whatever is the opposite of rose-colored glasses. We need to take those glasses off and start reframing situations in a more positive light. Maybe that guy from work with the shifty eyes doesn’t hate us; maybe he’s just stressed out. Or maybe we won’t fail on that next assignment after all and we’ll actually do really well. By recognizing that situations may not be as bad as we think, we can start to tamp down on our anxiety.

3. Be aware of sensitivity

Anxious individuals may be more sensitive than others, at least when it comes to things that may cause fear and anxiety. For example, research shows anxious individuals can detect lower levels of fear in faces. That increased sensitivity to seeing fear expressions means it may be easier to feel the fear that others are experiencing.

Now that you know you may be more sensitive to seeing fear, you can take measures to improve your experience in these situations. Now, I’m not suggesting you avoid things you are afraid of—like heights, flying, or other phobias—avoidance can be harmful in the long run. Rather, if you’re feeling anxious among a particular group of people, excuse yourself for a moment to regroup. Or, if you expect to be triggered in a particular situation, mentally prepare beforehand or remind yourself how you’ll cope with anxious emotions that may come up. These tricks can help you manage increased sensitivity and reduce anxiety.

4. Try not to catastrophize

Catastrophizing is a thought process characterized by excessive rumination and worry that often involves imagining the worst possible outcomes occurring. Anxious individuals are more likely to catastrophize. This tendency to focus on the bad things—bad things that don’t even exist yet—can be a recipe for chronic anxiety. This type of anxiety is not even about the things that are occurring in real life; it’s about imagined things.

To quit catastrophizing, try shifting your focus to something else. It may be helpful to focus on your breath. Or, pick up a small object like a rock or pen. Name every single detail of the object. This practice can shift your focus just enough to short-circuit catastrophizing thoughts and get your anxiety in check.

5. See the good in your anxiety

All emotions—even anxiety—have important functions and benefits. Anxiety is meant to help us be more attentive to threats. Anxiety helps us survey our environment for things that could harm us or others and if we find something, our bodies respond in ways that help us thrive. This is why small amounts of anxiety actually help us increase productivity and respond more effectively to a challenging world. So try to remember, our anxiety is there to help us. And as long as we can keep it under control, it will.

This article also appears on Think-Now.

References

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Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336.

Mathews, A., & Mackintosh, B. (1998). A cognitive model of selective processing in anxiety. Cognitive therapy and research, 22(6), 539-560.

Amir, N., Beard, C., Taylor, C. T., Klumpp, H., Elias, J., Burns, M., & Chen, X. (2009). Attention training in individuals with generalized social phobia: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 77(5), 961.

Hirsch, C., & Mathews, A. (1997). Interpretative inferences when reading about emotional events. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(12), 1123-1132.

Richards, A., French, C. C., Calder, A. J., Webb, B., Fox, R., & Young, A. W. (2002). Anxiety-related bias in the classification of emotionally ambiguous facial expressions. Emotion, 2(3), 273.

Keogh, E., & Asmundson, G. J. (2004). Negative affectivity, catastrophizing, and anxiety sensitivity. Understanding and treating fear of pain, 91-115.

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