To Beat Anxiety, Focus on What You Need

To Beat Anxiety, Focus on What You Need

If you’d like to beat anxiety, I offer you a hearty welcome to the club. As a long-term member and someone who has been able to overcome the grip that anxiety used to have on me, I have food for thought: Shift your focus away from beating anxiety. Notice that I didn’t say I’ve overcome anxiety but instead the grip it had on me. Anxiety is part of the human experience and it does have a place in our lives. It does not, however, deserve to be the center of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. To break free from the grip anxiety has on you, focus less on anxiety and more on what you do need instead. 

The Effects of Anxiety Grow When We Focus on Them

What we focus on is what grows. Paying attention to our anxiety–even if we’re thinking about the fact that we don’t want it–is akin to giving our undivided attention to a toddler in the throes of a hefty tantrum. If you’ve ever tried to negotiate with a child having a tantrum, you likely know that it doesn’t work. Begging the toddler to stop only fuels the tantrum. Ordering them to stop and threatening punishment only fuels the tantrum. Giving in to the screaming demands does quiet a tantrum in the moment, but doing so actually encourages more tantrums in the future because you teach the child that tantrums work. The only thing that effectively quells a child’s tendency to pitch fits is to ignore the child when they’re trying to control you and pay attention to something else instead (of course, it’s important to make sure they’re safe from harm first). 

Anxiety is like a tantrumming toddler. It screams. It flails. It dominates your thoughts. It causes unpleasant emotions. It impacts your behavior. Further, paying attention to anxiety only encourages it to keep manipulating you. The more you focus on it, the more you validate it. Even when you’re thinking of beating it, your concentration is still on « it. » As when dealing with a toddler having a meltdown, the best thing to do is to shift your focus. 

To Beat Anxiety, Focus on Your Needs

The concept may seem simple and obvious, but in reality, ignoring anxiety is extremely difficult. If it were easy to ignore anxiety, we would all just do that and no one would suffer from worries, fears, what-ifs, and worst-case scenarios. Because what we pay attention to is what grows, it’s imperative to have something to focus on that has nothing to do with anxiety. Without a replacement on which to concentrate our thoughts, feelings, or actions, our attention will default right back to anxiety simply because it’s there. 

It can be highly effective to shift your attention onto your needs–specifically, what you do need rather than what you don’t need in your life. You already know you don’t need anxiety. Therefore, you can be confident in letting that thought go and replacing it with thoughts of what you do need more of in your life.

Spend some time reflecting on your ideal version of yourself and your life. What would you like more of? Would you benefit from a stronger sense of inner peace? Would you enjoy forming new or strengthening existing connections with others? Perhaps you need a greater sense of freedom or control over your own life. Each of us is different, so our needs are unique. What is universal is the power of shifting our focus to what we want more of for ourselves or our lives. 

What we focus on is indeed what grows, largely because attention can become intention. It forms the foundation of our resolve and sparks action. It’s action–steps taken toward our goals–rather than thoughts about our goals that impacts the biggest change. Whatever we’re concentrating on is what shapes our actions. If, for example, we’re focusing on how much social anxiety is interfering in our ability to make meaningful, lasting connections with others, our actions will be dictated by those anxious thoughts and lead to continued avoidance. Reframe that to a sense of what you need (in this case, comfortable human connection), and develop your thoughts, goals, and actions around what you desire.

Reframing your thoughts and shifting your focus away from the melting-down toddler that is anxiety and onto what you really need more of in your life does indeed go a long way toward quieting the anxiety-tantrum. That said, this isn’t a quick-fix for anxiety but instead is more of a long-term solution that works over time (for some quick tips to reduce anxiety in a moment, read 12 Quick Anxiety Hacks for an Instant Reset). Be patient with yourself, and when you catch yourself focusing on anxiety, don’t be hard on yourself for it but instead just gently redirect your focus. I still do this, and it does become much easier with patience and practice. 

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

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