So much of the anxiety and fear struggle is based on what we feel, what we think, and what we think about what we feel. What if thinking and feeling were NOT the most important things in the universe all the time?  What if you could learn to pay attention to other things instead?

Anxiety and Fear Want Your Attention

Perhaps the most helpful thing to understand about your anxiety and fear is that it wants your attention. As much of it as it can get. And more often than not, we give it to them. Our anxious selves repeatedly make the mistake of treating ourselves, our thoughts, and our feelings as the only things in the world at any given time.

When anxious and afraid your attention turns inward and events happening outside of you are easily forgotten and ignored. This is incredibly common. The more anxious we feel and the more we begin to worry about what that anxiety means, the more we feel as though it’s safer to turn our attention to it. It’s the notion that if you think about it and worry about it – and worry about what you’re thinking about it – that somehow you will remain in control. But this is a mistake.

Anxiety and fear want this. It demands this attention from you. It convinces you that it is the center of everything.

When you do make it the center of everything you actually lose sight of the context of the situation and see that, in fact, there are other events happening around you all of the time. The events happening around you represent alternatives with respect to where you place your attention. You are not required to focus intently on your thoughts and feelings all the time, so remaining aware of alternatives can be really helpful in the recovery process.

With that in mind, it’s worth talking about what is at the heart of this topic today which is self as context.


Self As Context

As part of the recovery process, it is imperative that you learn how to change your reaction and relation to fear. A big aspect of this is learning where to put your attention. Notice how this is active, not passive. Learning where to actively place your attention and resisting the urge to direct it all toward the internal; toward the anxious thoughts, feelings, and sensations that will continually beg for your attention.

When you’re wanting to live a life where anxiety and fear are not the focus, you must learn to place your focus elsewhere and pay attention to something else.

Acceptance And Commitment Therapy (ACT) uses the idea of ‘self as context’ to put this idea into play. It ultimately means is that you, and all of the things that you think and/or feel, do not exist in a vacuum. You exist as part of a situation; as part of a context. Although when anxious and afraid anxiety might convince you that everything is about you, this is not true. You exist within the context of a wider situation.

This means that there are always events happening outside of you that you can place your attention onto.

You can divert your attention outward rather than inward because those thoughts, feelings, and sensations are not the only things happening. When you tell yourself that only your thoughts and sensations matter to you, you make the error of believing that you live in a vacuum.  At any given moment you are part of a wider context that has value.  This is life happening around you, and you can engage with it instead.

This is about expanding your awareness beyond yourself and integrating yourself into the greater context. Noticing who is around you, the sounds that you hear, the things you can feel, and the smells in the air.  This may sound similar to grounding techniques that you see mentioned all over social media, but not exactly.  Here we are not trying to “ground” or “calm” we’re merely asking that you acknowledge your anxiety is not the only things in the universe.

There are things beyond you and your body that are continuing to occur despite how you may think and feel during a time of anxiety or panic.

Here are three things to consider when putting this concept into practice:

#1: You’re Not The Only Thing Happening

To briefly recap on what has just been explained, you’re not the only thing happening at any given moment.

If you find yourself at a party and your anxiety pipes up, it will want your attention. It will want to be the single most important thing at that moment and it will want you to believe that how you feel is the only thing worth giving your attention to.

But, within this context, there may be a band playing. There may be people laughing or dancing. There may be people playing games. You might hear the neighbors TV playing. You might see cars driving up and down the street. No matter how strong and powerful those feelings inside you might be, there will always be other things happening within the context of the situation. Even something as simple as leaves on a tree blowing in the wind is something that is happening outside of you that proves that you and your anxious thoughts and sensations do not exist in a vacuum.


#2: Your Thoughts And Sensations Have Continually Been Proven Wrong

Although powerful thoughts and sensations may feel important, time and time again this has proven to be incorrect. These feelings of fear have arisen in times when you have not been in any real danger. Your brain has misinterpreted the situation and, whilst the fear is real and feels incredibly intense and strong, this does not mean that you are in fact in danger.

Try this:

“I know that I am not in any real danger. Although these feelings and worrying thoughts are panicking me right now, they can be both strong, and wrong at the same time.  It does not benefit me to give them all of my attention. I am living within a greater context of things worth paying attention to.”

No matter how urgent and important those thoughts and sensations may be, they are not everything.

#3: Pay Attention More Productively

Sometimes, we talk about attention as if it is finite. You might be experiencing anxiety or panic and feel as though you have to give it all of your attention.  It follows that you may decide that you don’t have enough attention “left” to place elsewhere.

It is true that during the process of trying to actively place attention outside of yourself you will inevitably bounce back and forth between internal and external focus. Your anxiety will always want to bring your attention back to the body and back to those thoughts, and that’s okay. The victory here is in being able to notice when you’ve started to turn your attention inward, ignoring the outside world, and redirecting your attention to the wider context of things.

With that in mind, when we’re discussing being more productive with our attention, we’re really saying that attention is an act. Attention is a verb. Attention is a behavior. You can actively decide to place your attention wherever you choose.

You might find yourself bouncing back and forth between your pounding heart and the football match…

You might find yourself swaying between your tight chest and the singer at the bar…

You might switch between your sweaty palms and writing your emails…

So long as you are actively choosing to place your attention outside of yourself during those times of panic and anxiety then you are using your attention productively. And, like any behavior, the more you practice it the easier it is to repeat. Attention is not a resource to be rationed, but a skill to be practiced.

Thinking Is Not The Only Event

Like most recovery practices, this may feel uncomfortable at first. But when we expand our awareness beyond our own minds and bodies, we can see that we have a choice as to where we place our attention. Paying attention is a thing we can DO, and we can choose how to do it even when anxious and afraid.

I encourage you to try this for yourself. When you notice your anxiety beginning to rise and the urge to retreat inward, giving it all of your attention, see if you can notice the things in your external environment. Allow yourself the opportunity to consider that while you are experiencing this moment of fear, it is not the only thing that is. The world continues to move and live around you and you can choose to pay attention to it.

When you do, you learn from experience that nothing bad happens, even when you engage with life rather than being glued exclusively to your fear.

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Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.