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Anxiety Is an Attention Hog -- What to Do About It

February 9, 2019 George Abitante

Anxiety can take over your attention completely, making life much more difficult. Learn about anxiety as an attention hog and what to do about it at HealthyPlace.

Anxiety can take all of your attention, but you can take it back. You see, I had a really interesting learning experience this week. I was working to finish a manuscript, and I devoted a lot of time to this task over the course of the week. Initially, I felt very productive and like I was making a lot of progress. But as I came closer to completing the manuscript, I found myself feeling less focused on what I needed to be doing. The fewer steps between me and finishing writing, the less I thought about what I could work on next and the more I thought about what I didn't like about it. Perhaps unintuitively, as I thought more about what I didn't like about my writing, the less productive I became.

The Problem: Anxiety Hogs Your Attention

I realized afterward that I had run into a common issue: anxiety is an attention hog. What do I mean by this? We often think of stress and anxiety as obstacles we have to deal with (and rightly so), but this kind of thinking only exacerbates the control they have over our attention. Can you remember a time when you were anxious but weren't overly concerned by it and just focused on something else? I sure can't.

When I'm worried about something, I become overly-focused on the concern I have instead of on positive changes I can make. And this applies to areas other than work as well -- if you're worried about the ways a conversation could go wrong, for example, you're probably not focused on the things that will make it go well. Anxiety makes you feel like it's the most important thing you have to pay attention to, but it's almost always lying. More often than not, it's everything aside from what we're anxious about that matters most. 

How to Take Back Your Attention from Anxiety

  1. Disagree frequently. When anxiety taps you on the shoulder, it is insistent that there is a problem. Your mind starts telling you there's a problem, your body starts saying there's a problem, and anxiety works really hard to convince you that something awful is happening. The key to stopping this is simple but difficult: disagree. Anxiety creates a mental framework that inaccurately processes information, and because of this it often leads us to draw incorrect conclusions about the world and whether we are safe in it. So next time anxiety wants to convince you something is wrong, try reminding it that it's never right and you're not interested in wasting time on it today.
  2. Agree dismissively. Another tack you can take is a little different. Your mind and body tell you there's something you really need to be anxious about, perhaps that if you get on the train it's going to break down and you'll be stuck on it for hours. The usual response is that would be awful -- you agree with the anxiety and escalate your thoughts over time ("These Awful Effects of Anxiety Must Stop!"). This is a natural response, but not one that is very beneficial. Instead, try agreeing with your anxiety that that's a possibility, but then say "so what?" Even if that feared event happens, you'd still be fine, and you can let your anxiety know that. 
  3. Judge infrequently. The benefits of non-judgment are numerous, but it can be particularly helpful for reducing anxiety. When anxious thoughts or feelings arise, practice thinking of them as what they are: thoughts and feelings. We often run into trouble with anxiety because we add layers of interpretation onto experiences we have, but just taking things at face value can be a liberating and healthy experience. The next time your anxiety tells you something is wrong, try looking at the event without adding judgments and see what you think. 

Anxiety is always trying to get our attention, and it's always a challenge to tell it no. Taking back your time and attention from anxiety can be a slow, difficult process, but the rewards in your productivity and happiness are well worth it. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2019, February 9). Anxiety Is an Attention Hog -- What to Do About It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, April 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2019/2/anxiety-is-an-attention-hog-what-to-do-about-it



Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

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