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Reduce Anxiety in Relationships by Choosing Your Attention

Relationships of all types are important in our lives, but as positive as it is to have a connection with someone, relationships can also be incredibly anxiety-provoking. You can ease that anxiety by choosing what you pay attention to.

Anxiety in relationships happens only in part because of the conflicts that inevitably occur in even the most loving and nurturing of relationships. Anxiety often happens because relationships have intruders: our thoughts, feelings, memories, and worries, and what-ifs. Our attention frequently wanders into places that lead to problems like anxiety. Therefore, choosing what we pay attention to can go a long way toward reducing anxiety in relationships

Is What You're Paying Attention to Causing Problems?

What we pay attention to is what grows in our mind and our life experience, impacting our thoughts, feelings, emotions, physical body, and actions. While this may seem obvious, the human brain is not automatically programmed to be fully aware of this concept. Therefore, we're not always intentional about our attention. I've shared these mind-blowing tidbits before, but they're so significant and relevant to relationship anxiety that they bear repeating1,2,3

  • The human brain has a negativity bias, remaining on alert for danger so it can activate our fight-or-flight response and keep us safe 
  • Therefore, the brain is constantly scanning in the background, and we have between 2,100 and 3,300 thoughts every single hour, 80 percent of which are negative (because that what the brain is subconsciously looking for)
  • Because we're not always in active, true, danger, much of what the brain finds when it scans is old, outworn thoughts and stories or repeated worries about the future--and again because it's looking for the negative, much of these memories are skewed and inaccurate and the worries are only about imagined negative consequences, not potential positives

The result of all this brain activity on our relationships is significant. Without fully realizing it, we aren't paying attention to the true nature of our relationships. We're not fully present in our interactions with the people in our lives. Instead, our brain is constantly running in the background, scanning for trouble so it can protect us.

We often ruminate about past problems and imperfections and use them to time-travel into the future to predict conflicts. This morning's argument, for example, never really ends in our brain. We continue to ruminate about it (because that's what the brain's negativity bias tells us to do), and because outworn thought patterns and emotions are bouncing around in the background, they stick to today's argument and make it grow. We then look for things to reinforce these thoughts and feelings, noticing imperfections and adding them to the stream of automatic negative thoughts and emotions. This can cause incredible anxiety in our relationships. 

Choose Your Attention to Reduce Anxiety in Relationships

The good news is that we can override the brain's negativity bias. Once we're aware that we're caught up in our anxiety-provoking thoughts and emotions that are affecting our physical bodies (all the physical symptoms of anxiety) and actions, we can step away and choose to change our focus.

When you notice relationship anxiety, shift your attention to something in your present moment (a practice known as mindfulness). Center yourself in what is happening now by focusing on one aspect of your moment to draw yourself out of your negativity bias. Even if the moment is stressful, doing so will keep you present, centered, and focused rather than fueled by thoughts about the past or future. Then, you can more calmly deal with the stressful situation.

Sometimes, we feel anxious in our interactions with others because we are trying to mind-read, to guess and interpret what the other person is thinking or feeling. Shift your attention to actions in the here-and-now. Actions are tangible and reliable. If your partner is treating you respectfully, focus on that fact rather than trying to guess what they're thinking. If your partner is treating you disrespectfully, focusing on the problematic actions in the present moment will position you to respond to the current problem rather than reacting emotionally.   

Relationships, while rewarding, are often difficult. In most cases (with the exception of abusive relationships) the brain's negativity bias, is what truly causes problems like relationship anxiety. Develop the purposeful habit of choosing to pay attention to what is real and tangible in each present moment to reduce relationship anxiety and more thoroughly enjoy your relationships. 

Sources

  1. Sasson, R., "How Many Thoughts Does Your Mind Think in One Hour?" Success Consciousness, Accessed February 24, 2021.
  2. Millett, M., "Challenge Your Negative Thoughts." Michigan State University, March 31, 2017. 
  3. Niemiec, R.M., Mindfulness and Character Strengths: A Practical Guide to Flourishing. Hogrefe, 2014. 

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2021, March 4). Reduce Anxiety in Relationships by Choosing Your Attention , HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2021/3/reduce-anxiety-in-relationships-by-choosing-your-attention



Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC, DAIS

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, and Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps. She has also written five critically acclaimed, award-winning novels about life with mental health challenges. She delivers workshops for all ages and provides online and in-person mental health education for youth. She has shared information about creating a quality life on podcasts, summits, print and online interviews and articles, and at speaking events. Tanya is a Diplomate of the American Institution of Stress helping to educate others about stress and provide useful tools for handling it well in order to live a healthy and vibrant life. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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