Focus on What You Can Control
One look around will tell you that we, as a society, are plagued by anxiety. Anxiety is a deep, biological response to stress and isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It’s a necessary impulse that tells us we’re in danger, and it shouldn’t be ignored. If you’re feeling anxious all of the time, it can be a sign that something is wrong in your life and needs your attention: be it your job, your relationship with your partner, or your family life. But what about the free-floating anxiety that can cripple us even when there isn’t anything obviously wrong in our lives?
The anxiety of the athletes I work with is a good example of this. Elite athletes are often dealing with very high stakes and incredible pressure to perform; anxiety comes with the territory. One young lady I worked with several years ago, a collegiate hockey player, was competing against two other women for the position of goalie. Whoever was chosen would retain the position for the duration of the season, and she was incredibly anxious about whether or not she’d make the cut. I asked her what was at the root of her anxiety, what exactly she feared. She feared being put on the spot and judged harshly by coaches and teammates. She feared the unknown of who her coach would ultimately pick. Of course, none of these things were under her control, so I encouraged her to turn her attention to the process rather than the outcome. I told her to focus on her nutrition and sleep habits, her visualization and journaling, her pregame meal—factors she had control over.
When we focus on things that are not under our control, our anxiety becomes bottomless, and it can undermine our ability to be productive with what we can control, consuming our resources by exhausting us with dread.
Feeling anxious isn’t a failing—we need it to survive—but how can we keep it from getting out of hand? There are three factors I consider when helping clients confront their anxiety: the frequency (how often they’re anxious), the duration (how long it lasts), and the intensity (how bad it is). I find clients often become overly focused on frequency: I feel anxious every day! Of the three factors, however, frequency is the one we often have the least amount of control over. Our fast-paced, stressed-out world is full of triggers: deadlines, tests, bills, difficult people. There’s no avoiding them. So how can we lessen their impact? By focusing on what we can control, including our own thoughts.
I am a naturally anxious person—Zen takes work for me. When I’m feeling anxious, I ask myself if there’s anything I can do to fix whatever is bothering me. Often, there isn’t, and so I focus on fixing my thoughts rather than fixing the problem. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I ask myself, what is the worst thing that can happen? If I am catastrophizing, I work to get my head back into reality. Distraction can be another great strategy. I do this by refocusing my thoughts on gratitude.
Asking yourself what you’re grateful for will immediately shift your perspective. You may not have entirely eliminated your anxiety, but it will stop feeling overwhelming. Gratitude has a way of counterbalancing anxiety, because there is an inherent acceptance of the moment when we are in a place of gratitude.
Anxiety is unavoidable. Focus on what you can control and counter it with gratitude. For the next three nights at bedtime, try writing down three things you are grateful for and go to sleep with those on your mind.