Lower Anxiety by Focusing Your Thoughts--Not Focusing on Them
Thursday, December 14 2017 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Focusing our thoughts is a powerful way to reduce anxiety because we're taking charge of our thoughts. A frustrating thing about anxiety is that it seems to take over. It invades our thoughts and runs wild with them. All types of anxiety involve racing thoughts, and racing thoughts are unfocused thoughts. Or perhaps they are focused, it's just that they're focused on worries, fears, negative self-judgments, and traps we're stuck in. You can calm your mind and reduce anxiety by focusing your thoughts.
What Focusing Your Thoughts is Not
Anxious thoughts are miserable. They lead to all sorts of unpleasant symptoms of anxiety. Also, because they constantly clamor around in our head, they control what we're thinking about. Of course, we hate that, so we tend to think about these thoughts and our anxiety quite a bit. This focus, however, is not what focusing our thoughts involves.
Focusing your thoughts is not:
- Homing in on worries and fears
- Getting stuck in your thoughts by arguing with them
- Listening to what they are telling you and believing them
- Paying attention to them and making decisions based on what they say
When we do these things, we are focusing on our thoughts. Since our thoughts are anxious, we're focusing on anxiety. Because worries and fears are controlling our thoughts, they're also controlling our actions (or lack of action).
What Focusing Your Thoughts Is
Anxious thoughts race through our minds. It's what they do. We, however, don't have to chase them. We can't always stop the racing thoughts, but we can turn our attention to something else.
This shift in focus, paying attention what we want to pay attention to rather than the anxious commentary rattling around in our head, doesn't come easily at first. It's something that we have to do on purpose, with intention. This is a process that involves:
- Noticing that we're paying attention to our anxious thoughts
- Finding something better to pay attention to
- Turning our attention to this better thing, person, activity, etc.
- Turning our attention to it again and again because doing this takes a lot of practice
The great part about this is that you get to choose what you focus on. Instead of anxiety telling you what to think, you now can pick what you want to think about and then what you want to do. Notice that the key is shifting your focus. Ironically, one of the most powerful ways to reduce anxiety is not struggling with it or fighting and resisting. Instead, a very powerful way to lower anxiety is to accept that it exists, let it do its thing in one part of your mind, and then choose something positive to focus on instead.
The Importance of Choosing Your Focus
This little story is taken from a book called Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 Steps. It illustrates the power of focusing our thoughts.
Once there was a little tortoise who enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine. Her owners took her outside and put her in a big fenced-in circle of grass. But even though the pen was large, the tortoise felt trapped. The fence made her feel anxious, and she worried that she was stuck and would never get out. She kept thinking these thoughts, and she rammed into the side of it over and over again in an attempt to break it down. But it didn't work. After hours of ramming, she was exhausted. She gave up pulled her head, legs, and tail into her shell, and just lay there worrying about being trapped. She was so focused on her anxiety and fear of being trapped that she didn't even notice the open gate on the other side.
Do you focus on the walls of the fence, or do you focus on the big patch of grass and the gate? Anxiety makes us think about the fence, but we can reduce anxiety, and break out of the fence, by shifting our focus.