Originally published on July 11, 2020
Staying Out of The Anxiety Rabbit Hole
“Shift your focus to something positive.” Not exactly rocket science, I know. But anxiety is a weird thing, and so are many of the solutions to it.
Like the aforementioned suggestion, many of the most helpful strategies for mitigating anxiety seem somewhat obvious at first glance. It’s only in the application of such strategies that things get a bit more interesting. And that’s a bit of a shame, because we often cast off such seemingly mundane solutions, then find ourselves defenseless when thrown into the depths of fear.
But, for a minute, let’s just say this strategy wasn’t so obvious. Why then, is it helpful when it comes to mitigating anxiety? And not just on the surface — I mean, really, what makes this power-of-positive-thinking-style strategy hold up in real-time? Let’s jump into it.
Let’s say you’re a track and field athlete, and you’ve got a big pole vaulting competition coming up next week. Even if you’re not actually a track star, that’s okay. Just apply these same ideas to any other scary situation you may be facing.
So, this competition means everything to you. You’ve trained insanely hard to get here, and you really want to capture first place. Being the somewhat anxious person you are, however, you also really don’t want to do anything that would make you look like a fool during the big contest. Unfortunately, the means by which you could do so are almost endless.
For example, you could shatter your pole during the competition, which would mean having to shell out hard-earned cash for another expensive stick. You could also injure yourself on the front or back end of one of your vaults, effectively ending your bid at competitive glory. Or, you could miss the team bus and not even get the chance to compete at all.
Now I know what you may be saying to yourself. “Most people don’t think like this, right?” Not exactly. Thanks to our brain’s innate negativity bias, which I wrote about in a previous Medium article, we’re often on the lookout for negative hypotheticals and stimuli that could pose a threat to our well-being.
After all, the brain is a survival-promoting, pain-hating machine. As such, it’s often overly suspicious of anything that could cause us physical, psychological, or emotional harm.
Moreover, we anxious folks often experience this bias quite strongly, and on a regular basis. That is, we detect powerful, pessimistic thoughts as they come into our heads, and, instead of letting them go, we attach to them. So, no, it’s really not that crazy to think about injuring or embarrassing ourselves during the competition — that’s really just our brain’s negativity bias at work.
But let’s keep our hypothetical example going for just another minute. So you defensively think about one of these daunting competitive scenarios, and it really shakes you up. I mean, you’ve trained your whole career just to get to this moment — could you even live with yourself if you blew it? It’s that very question that propels you down the anxiety rabbit hole.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the rabbit hole is a metaphorical model of cyclical anxiety. It’s a pit that goes as deep as you care to make it, a possibly never-ending trough of continual worry. And it typically works something like this.
First, a scary thought pops into our minds and overwhelms us. Then, in a worried, fearful state, another negative thought arises, and we latch onto that one. And on and on the cycle goes, as the thoughts come quicker and more intensely, dragging us further down the hole in the process.
That is, at least until we shift our focus to something positive.
When I said anxiety is a weird thing, one of the concepts I was alluding to was the fact that we often think that by fighting fear and negative thoughts, we can make them go away.
But as Einstein once brilliantly said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Or, in other words, if we want our anxiety to dissipate, we have to stop attaching to our fears. We have to stop ruminating on yet another scary potential outcome. We have to move our focus elsewhere.
Only in shifting our focus off of the negative can we give ourselves a chance to emerge from the rabbit hole. In terms of our pole vaulting competition example, this could mean one of many things. It could mean focusing on the delicious meal you’re about to have for dinner or what uplifting music you’re going to listen to before bed.
What it absolutely cannot mean, however, is trying to solve or outwit your thoughts about failing, in one capacity or another, at the competition. You get what you focus on, and so if you focus on failure, that’s what you’ll drive toward, in some fashion. Even if you end up actually doing well at the contest in spite of such thoughts, you’ll still have put yourself through a good deal of unnecessary mental anguish.
Now, here’s the final piece of the puzzle: as you shift your focus, be easy on yourself. It may be difficult to detach from your negative thoughts, and that’s okay. Beating yourself up for being anxious isn’t going to solve any of your problems — it’s actually only going to make things a whole lot worse. Stacking tension and frustration on top of anxiety is a lot like pouring gasoline on an already blazing fire.
There’s nothing wrong with getting stuck on negative thoughts. Though you should try to shift your focus back to the positive, be gentle with yourself until you can. You don’t even need to think about succeeding at the competition — any place outside of the rabbit hole will do.
As you pull your mind back out of the darkness, you’ll likely notice something shift in your body. That is, you’ll feel a bit of a weight lift inside you. As you recognize that feeling, stick with it. Ride that positivity, or the mere absence of negativity, all the way to that competition (or big meeting, date, or other scary situation you’re facing).
If you do that well enough, you might not only feel pretty good leading up to it but also find that you end up performing pretty well during that situation, when it finally does come to pass.
Thanks for reading! Curious to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
*Disclaimer: The above link is an affiliate URL, which pays me a small commission when readers make purchases through it.