The Relationship between Anxiety and Attention

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Attention is a learn-able skill

There are many famous quotes and affirmations spoken through the years that point to the humbling truth that most suffering never actually happened … of course this is only partially true as we can all speak to the suffering involved in having a high level of anxiety.

it isn’t that the suffering never happened, but instead that the reality which could have created the suffering never actually occurred – instead the suffering was the result of focusing attention on a reality that could happen in the future – the cortex loves to fixate the attention on the future so that it can engage its’ problem solving abilities in a effort to reduce the probability of suffering in that future.

Ironically it is this ‘future solution’ process which is often the source of our anxiety and resulting suffering.

much of the time the present moment is free from stress… it is actually quite benign or neutral much of the time. In these moments the cortex gets really bored… there are no puzzles to solve, no needs to create strategies for, no meaning to be made…

So then we imagine fictitious situations so that we can engage in strategy creation.

Most problems are too easy… so we gravitate towards unsolvable or complex problems.

the problem is that our Limbic system and our brainstem do not know that the fictitious situation are not actually happening… so while the cortex is having a great time playing a make-believe game in the future, our emotional system is reacting as if the fictitious situation were actually happening to us.

let me give you an example:

Imagine that you went to work tomorrow and you bumped into a co-worker that you have always struggled with… imagine them saying to you that thing that you know they think about you, but have never said to you directly. Now imagine that your boss enters into the conversation and takes the side of your co-worker…. what would you do?

pretty uncomfortable right?

why are you uncomfortable? in reality you are simply sitting somewhere reading this… it’s quite pleasant perhaps?

When our attention is placed in these fictitious futures we find that we are the source of our anxiety – we (our at least our Cortexes)are the source of our suffering.

This is why you hear so much talk about Mindfulness (many posts on the subject if you look in my archives)

Mindfulness is a mechanism to harness and heighten our ability to focus our attention

With practice we can increase our ability to put our attention where we want to – such as right now in this present moment… where it may be quite pleasant

With practice we can learn to observe when attention is stuck on a fictitious future… and come back home … to now

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.