Too much anxious focus on a problem can make it worse.

By Kathleen Smith, PhD (From Psychology Today Website)

My daughter turned one this month, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that anxiety has played in my functioning as a parent. How much has my anxiety clouded my perception of her distress and her development?  When have I been able to gain some degree of objectivity to determine what her real needs are and aren’t?

Often, too much anxious attention on a challenge can cause more trouble than the problem itself. My ultimate goal is to strengthen my ability to switch from anxious attention to thoughtful attention in times of stress. Here are a few ways that I can tell the difference between these two modes.

Anxious attention can look like:

  • Trying to manage, fix, or direct others
  • Trying to calm others instead of calming self
  • Treating your imagination as reality
  • Abandoning your principles for quick or popular solutions

Thoughtful attention can look like:

  • Observing your own emotional reactivity
  • Calming self before responding
  • Taking time to gather the facts
  • Sitting with the discomfort that problem solving takes time

Many of the young adults I see dedicate a great deal of anxious attention towards finding a partner. Dating apps allow them to worry and focus on potential mates almost 24/7, because they are always on their phones. People usually respond to this anxiety in one of two ways: they retreat and delete, or they attack their singleness by scheduling as many dates as possible.

When people put anxious attention on dating, they lose their sense of self. The goal becomes managing the other: to get the other to like them, respond to them, and go out with them again. Since that is impossible to do, you can imagine how reactive it can make a person. People are desperate for a solution to this anxiety. Trying to distract themselves from an unreturned text doesn’t seem to help that much. The only way they can seem to calm down is to get a response from this new person.

Sitting with the discomfort that people are allowed to reject you is not easy. Neither is living the reality that finding a partner takes time and often many detours. People seem to do best when they are able to flip their focus from other back onto self. It’s sort of like taking a camera phone and switching the mode to selfie. Taking a real look at yourself can be tough, but self-focus is the terrain where you can find a little bit of calm.

Thoughtful attention requires asking self-focused questions. For those in the dating world, this might look like asking:

  • Who do I want to be on a date?
  • How do I want to treat others?
  • What is my responsibility to communicate?

Note that this is very different than “How do I get this person to like me and to text me back?”

The same idea applies to parenting or your marriage. You cannot make your spouse pick up dirty clothes, and you can’t make your child do their homework or sleep through the night. But you can ask yourself, “How do I want to respond to this reality? What position am I going to take based on these facts?” Because that’s what thoughtful attention is at its core: responding to reality instead of anxiety.

Think about what people or problems you’ve been giving anxious attention. What would it look like to give them thoughtful attention instead? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How can I take a step back to calm down and access my best thinking?
  • How can I stay focused on myself instead of fixing others?
  • How can I remind myself that thoughtful attention might be more uncomfortable?