Originally published on February 11, 2023
Deciphering Between Rumination and Presence
In my writings, I talk extensively about visualization and how dangerous it can be — especially in the face of anxiety. Though many of you know my argument on that front already, let me provide a refresher since it serves as the foundation of this article.
Throughout our lives, we’ve heard Law-of-Attraction-style messages from parents, teachers, role models, and even society at large, suggesting that if we want to have, be, or do something, we must first envision it in our minds.
Though I’m all for positivity and admit this concept can help generate that emotion, I also think that, more often than not, it proves quite dangerous. That’s because visualizing what we want sometimes leads us to obsess over what we don’t, especially when we’re apprehensive or uncertain about the former from the get-go.
Think about it this way. Let’s say you have a vacation coming up and are afraid of flying. Ahead of your departing flight, proponents of the Law of Attraction would say that what you want out of the situation before you is to land safely on the ground after a smooth voyage. Thus, you should picture said journey transpiring in that fashion. That way, it’ll play out as such.
However, rarely is it so easy to accomplish that sort of thing. Why? Because fear and doubt get in the way. That is, if you were to attempt to foresee yourself on your upcoming expedition, it likely wouldn’t be long before your greatest worries creep in and force you to confront the prospects of turbulence, inclement weather, and other aviation-related terrors.
Thus, my argument here isn’t that the Law of Attraction is bogus or can’t make you feel better. Instead, it’s that, for most of us, such a strategy will be really difficult to implement. That’s why, as scary as it may sound, you’d likely be better off just getting on the plane without all the mental rehearsal. After all, doesn’t it sound more appealing to only fight your fears once (rather than during the flight and in advance of it)?
Distracting Ourselves from Our Ruminations
Speaking of flights, a few years ago, my brother went on vacation with his pal Charlie — a guy who, given his immense fear of planes, makes traveling quite difficult.
Yet, contrary to his disdain for aircraft, Charlie absolutely loves automobiles; he reads every volume of Car and Driver the day it comes out and washes his BMW at least once a week. What’s more, if you ever get him speaking on the subject (and, trust me, it isn’t too difficult), he’ll fall into a blissful trance — unaware of almost anything else going on around him.
After my brother got home from that trip, he told me a funny story that captured this car-loving side of Charlie perfectly. Namely, he said that as soon as he and his companion arrived at the airport for their departing flight, Charlie started explaining how terrified he was to get on the plane. Though I wasn’t there myself, it sounded pretty bad — Charlie was looping hard and on the verge of a panic attack.
Yet, despite his overwhelming anxiety, Charlie managed to force himself aboard their flight anyway, and, would you know it, things took an unexpected and cheerful turn for him from there.
Upon reaching his seat, Charlie saw that the person sitting next to him was reading the latest volume of his favorite publication — none other than Car and Driver. So, he did what any automobile enthusiast would do: chat that person up until it was time to deplane.
Now, this is where things get comical: According to my brother, that flight ended up being quite turbulent. So much so, in fact, that he spent most of that voyage worrying about the physical safety of everyone onboard as well as the mental well-being of his fretful friend.
Two cold-sweat-filled hours later, however, and to everyone’s delight, the plane finally touched down as planned. Since my brother was seated several rows in front of Charlie, he disembarked first, then waited for his companion at their arrival gate, where he attempted to reset himself after the chaotic journey.
As soon as he saw his pal walking down the jet bridge, he yelled, “Wow! What a terrible flight, huh?! How did you survive?!” At that moment, Charlie looked at my brother, puzzled, then replied, “Rough flight? What on Earth do you mean? I was talking about BMWs with the guy next to me the entire time. I didn’t notice a thing.”
Though my brother was still distressed from all the turbulence, that response snapped him right out of it. Within seconds, he was practically rolling on the ground, laughing.
Just a minute prior, he’d been worried sick for Charlie. Sixty seconds later, however, his pal thought he was the crazy one. It was a turn of events no one could’ve seen coming.
And, not to mention: it was one made possible only by the power of distraction and its ability to keep us out of the depths of our minds.
Separating Rumination and Presence
There are many reasons I love that story, but the main one is that it reminds me there’s a fine line between thinking about doing something and actually doing it — one that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to anxiety. Here’s what I mean by that.
As we discussed at the beginning of this post, when we have fear-inciting events on the horizon, our first instinct is to jump into our heads and try to foresee or reason our way through them. But, as we also covered, that rarely works because doing so moves us closer toward and amplifies our accompanying apprehensions.
Much of the time, when we engage in such a process, we claim we’re doing so to “train” our subconscious minds — to make them believe we’ve already accomplished or attained what we want. That way, when our unsettling plans finally arrive, we’ll be able to respond to them with equanimity or confidence and, as a result, move seamlessly toward our desires for real.
While I admire the intention of that hypothesis, I think it’s a bit misguided. Why? Because it’s rare for a forthcoming scary occurrence to play out the way we expect, making it nearly impossible to prepare for or predict in full.
Furthermore, such a theory disregards the takeaway with which I opened this section, forcing us to rewrite it as such: though fixating on a task and actually completing it may seem similar, the former is really just a euphemism for rumination, while the latter is a reliable path to presence — two wildly different phenomena.
In other words, when we’re truly engaged in something, we’re tapped into what’s going on in front of us and are on legitimate autopilot. And though we may still be or get anxious in such moments, for the most part, we’re shooting from the hip without so much influence from our mental monsters during them. Yet, when we’re stewing, we’re deep in the confines of our minds, rehashing everything endlessly while convincing ourselves we’re “in the moment.”
Often, it takes enduring one of these frightening tasks to fully comprehend this discrepancy. That’s because once we get to the situation we’ve been dreading, our hearts and subconscious minds tend to take over and preclude us from obsessing as much as before. And, if we’re lucky, they may even put us “in the zone,” where we almost “black out” and overlook what it is we’re doing altogether.
Then, once that event has passed (assuming it doesn’t go terribly), we can usually look back and say to ourselves, “Wow, that wasn’t even close to what I’d been anticipating. In fact, the worst part of the whole ordeal was the time leading up to it” (a subject I’ve conveniently written about before). And that conclusion not only makes us feel better, but it also gives us a tad more motivation to stay out of our heads in similar future scenarios.
So, the next time you catch yourself rehashing yet another upcoming, unpredictable occurrence — be it a networking event, a conversation with your boss, or even a flight with a friend — take a step back, reconnect to this heartening logic, and sink your teeth into something that’ll distract you from your obsessions. Your brain may try to convince you to keep looping, but remember, that won’t lead you anywhere good. Only its deceivingly-similar opposite will: returning to the present moment.
Thanks For Reading. Want Even More Tactics for Managing Anxiety?
Then check out my first book, “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.” It covers many of the subjects I discuss in my blogs and gives you a framework for dealing with fear at a high level.