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How to Stop Worrying: The Spotlight Technique

Learn a simple tool to help stop the worry cycle.

Key points

  • Worry is an attempt to avoid uncertainty.
  • The key anti-worry skill is to redirect your attention off of trying to figure out the answers to worry questions and onto the present moment.
  • Attentional redirection takes time, consistency, and effort.

When you are anxious about something, does it feel like you have trouble turning your mind off? Or that you can't move on to doing other things until the worry is resolved?

Worry is tricky and it can be hard to stop worrying. While you can't just make a thought go away, you can control what you choose to do in response to worry thoughts.

Worry is all about fear of uncertainty.

Worrying is an attempt to try to resolve the scary uncertainty, but the process is endless because most of the time worry questions can't really be answered for certain.

The thing to do instead is to confront your fear of uncertainty by purposely leaving worry questions unanswered and moving on with whatever you are doing with your time in spite of the fact that they are unanswered.

Source: cottonbro/Pexels

This is, of course, easier said than done, but I like to give my clients a simple way to think about how to do this that can make it easier to conceptualize. I call it the spotlight technique.

The way to think about it is like this: imagine that you are a spotlight operator in a theater. So you get to decide where on the stage the light goes. Pretend that the stage is your mind and the spotlight is the spotlight of your attention: where you are focusing your mental effort and energy right now. On one side of the stage, you've got the anxious thoughts raising all of your worry questions: "Are you going to die?!" "Are you going to lose your job?!" "Do people think you're weird?!" On the other side of the stage, you've got whatever you are actually doing right here, right now in the present moment. That can be anything. If you're reading a book, it's reading the book. If it's driving, it's the podcast you're listening to or what you see on your drive. If you're talking to someone, it's the conversation.

Typically, your normal habit is to think to yourself, "Well those anxiety questions are really big and important, I couldn't possibly move on with my day until I answer that." So you put the spotlight on the worry questions and you analyze away, trying desperately to answer the questions.

But trying to resolve the uncertainty is the cause of the whole problem, not the solution.

So it just feeds more anxiety and since most worry questions are literally impossible to answer with certainty, it just goes on and on endlessly.

The spotlight technique is simply this: When you catch yourself putting the spotlight on the worry questions and trying to analyze the answers, all you have to do is make a conscious choice to move the spotlight of your attention onto the other side of the stage, onto what you are actually doing with your time right now.

 Lucas Pezeta/Pexels
Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels

This doesn't make the anxious thoughts go away and it doesn't make it so that you don't hear them. It's not a distraction technique. If you try to not think about the thoughts, that's all you'll think about. It's more that you are simply ignoring the worry questions. They're still there, but they are in the dark in the background and you are not doing anything with them. The spotlight of your attention is on what you are doing in the present moment; the anxious thoughts are getting ignored.

This requires you to give yourself permission to not solve the problems that your brain says you absolutely must solve right now.

That's what "letting go" means. It's not letting go of the worry or the thoughts themselves. It's letting go of the effort to solve the worry.

It's hard. You also won't be perfect at it; there will be times when you'll use it and then pretty quickly, just out of habit, your attention will slip back onto the worry thoughts without you even intending for it to do so. That's OK—it's part of the process of getting better at this skill. Think of it like a weak muscle that you are working out: it will get stronger gradually over time.

All you have to do is consistently make the choice to move the spotlight back to the present moment every time you catch yourself putting it on the worry questions. Don't worry about how often you have to do this and try not to beat yourself up for unintentionally letting the spotlight slip onto the worry thoughts; just consistently bring the attention back to what you are doing in front of you and it will get easier and easier.

Your brain will also gradually get more and more used to ignoring the worries and it will eventually learn to stop treating them as dangerous and ringing the alarm of anxiety about them. It takes time, consistency, and effort, but this skill of attentional redirection is the most important coping skill for decreasing worry and anxiety in the long run.