“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it—just as we have learned to live with storms.” ~Paulo Coelho
“Am I focusing too much on my anxiety?”
This very question weighed heavily on my mind as I found myself in yet another bout of anxiety. I was playing professional baseball at the time, and I just couldn’t seem to free myself from the constant and unending worrisome thoughts racing through my head.
A lot of these thoughts centered around how I would perform the next game. What my teammates were thinking of me, whether they saw me as a valuable part of the team. I often thought about why I was playing baseball and if I was wasting my time.
All of these worries did nothing but lead to further thoughts, centering around much of the same, leading to a terrible cycle.
This was not the first time I realized the presence of anxiety in my life. It has been something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember.
In college, I even worked with a sport psychologist who taught me coping mechanisms to alleviate the anxiety I felt surrounding baseball.
We addressed my self-talk, with him generating a routine I could use the night before games. He also focused heavily on process goals. As focusing on the process, rather than the outcome, is a major way to reduce anxious thinking.
After completing a master’s in psychology and beginning work as a mental performance coach, I felt as though I had a solid understanding of how to cope with anxiety. Why was it then that I once again found myself in its grasp?
Well, the truth is, no matter how strong you build your mind and how much work you put in, anxiety will still find its way into your life. Some time or another, those pesky worrisome thoughts will enter your head.
What matters is how long you allow those thoughts to stick around. And what’s interesting is, sometimes the more we try to rid ourselves of anxiety, the more we invite it to stay.
That is the mistake I made, and why, after all my years of work and learning, I found myself faced with great difficulty.
Energy Flows Where Attention Goes
Have you ever heard this saying before?
I’ve heard different interpretations of its meaning, but one I really resonate with is, wherever we place our attention will be amplified.
This means the more we focus on our anxiety, the greater the strength we give it.
So if we want to not feel anxious, one of the worst things we can do is try to not feel anxious.
When I recognized I was giving my anxiety too much attention, I realized what needed to happen instead. The decision I made involved the same techniques I’m going to show you later in the article.
For now, I want to address just a little bit about why we focus so much on anxiety in the first place.
Can’t I Just Will It Away?
I’m the first to admit to having fallen into this type of thinking in the past.
Whenever I would grow overly anxious before a game or experience anxiety in my daily life (which was all too often), my natural response was to try and force the anxiety out.
But that only worsened the problem. I remember feeling the anxiety actually grow within the more I tried to get it out.
So why do we continue to believe we can rid ourselves of anxiety through focusing on it?
The main reason is due to the fact we are anxious people in the first place. Do you know how hard it is to stop thinking about something? Especially when that which has captured your attention is as powerful an emotion as anxiety.
So, one, the easiest option is to grow anxious over the anxiety, thus focusing on trying to will it away. Two, anxiety is a scary feeling. Having uncontrollable thoughts that lead to a dizzying feeling of dread is not fun.
As a result, we try to get rid of it as quickly as we can. Removing our attention from the anxiety and trusting in some other technique does not feel as safe as simply focusing on how terribly we feel and hoping the anxiety will go away.
But as I already said, giving too much attention to our anxiety only makes it worse. So, what can we do instead? The answer lies in attention, the shifting of attention that is.
The Power of Shifting Your Attention
Since we know where we place our attention is where our energy will be directed, a shift in focus can drastically improve our mental state.
When I questioned whether I was focusing too much on my anxiety, it became clear to me that I was obsessing over why I experienced it, where it came from, and how I could get rid of it.
So, I decided to make a switch and instead, give my attention to how I wanted to feel. This meant focusing on ways to feel confident, relaxed, and so on.
Do you see the major difference? Understanding that everything is heightened based on how much attention we give it, you realize it’s only hurting you further to focus on what you don’t want.
Once you accept the anxiety you feel, it’s now time to turn your attention onto how you wish to feel instead. Always focus on things in the affirmative rather than the negative. Pay attention to how you want to feel, not how you don’t want to feel.
To become more relaxed and confident I employed the use of meditation and visualization.
Using Meditation and Visualization to Train Focus
I sit for mindfulness meditation twice a day and just relish in the moment.
I have found the practice so powerful in training my mind to focus on the present moment. Not only has it taught me to give attention to feeling relaxed and calm, but the more present I am, the less anxiety I feel.
That’s because anxiety, by definition, is a child of the future. To feel anxious means you are worried about what may happen or something not happening the way you wish.
To practice mindfulness meditation, simply follow these steps:
1. Get into a comfortable position with your back straight. I prefer sitting on my knees, but feel free to sit in a chair if that’s more comfortable.
2. Set your timer. You do not want to be wondering if you’ve meditated long enough. Give yourself five to ten minutes if you’re a beginner. Choose a calming alarm, as you don’t want to be startled out of your mindful state.
3. Close your eyes and begin breathing deeply and rhythmically. Focus on your breath and as your mind wanders, simply return your focus, without judgment. Thoughts will keep coming. The goal isn’t to stop them. It’s to allow and observe them, then let them pass.
I also use mindfulness is during the day. Whenever I feel anxious, I’ll pause and take a few breaths to center myself in the present.
I usually add some count breathing into this—breathing in for a count of five and out for ten.
Visualization has been an equally powerful tool in training my mind to manage worrisome thoughts.
After my meditation is complete and I’m relaxed, I visualize myself full of confidence, calm, and relaxed in different scenarios where I typically feel anxious.
Once again, I am not seeing myself as not anxious, but rather as the way I wish to be.
Usually, I’ll decide on one situation each day and visualize it in detail—what’s going on in my environment, who’s around me, what they’re doing. This allows me to mentally practice facing these situations with ease.
Throughout the day, whenever I feel anxious, I bring this image back into my mind, reminding myself to operate off my ideal vision of myself rather than my past conditioning.
These techniques have been tremendously helpful in shifting my attention off anxiety. And the less attention I give to feeling anxious, the less hold anxiety has on my life.
If you are struggling with anxiety, I encourage you to ask yourself the same question I did, “Am I focusing too much on my anxiety?” You might be surprised by how your anxiety eases when you stop giving it so much attention.
About Eli Straw
Eli Straw is a coach and writer who produces articles each week on his blog at successstartswithin.com. Eli believes in creating daily habits that work to build a strong mind. You can learn more about Eli and the work he does by following him on instagram at @elistraw.