Picture yourself with a hot date at your favorite restaurant. The lights are low, the candle is flickering in the middle of the table. You’re enjoying great food and conversation. Suddenly you are interrupted by a blaring car alarm! It totally hijacks your attention away from the awesome date. Really?!?
You find the car and notice, not surprising, it is a false alarm. The car’s alarm is so sensitive that it went off when the people in the car behind it shut their doors.
You try to turn your attention back to your amazing date. Slowly, even though the alarm continues, you find yourself not noticing it as much. And it’s not affecting your date like it did in the beginning. It is still there but it stops bothering you. You actually don’t notice when it stops.
I like to use this metaphor to show how we can deal with our anxious thoughts. Let me pull out some key elements to take away from the story and show you how they relate to stopping anxiety:
Car alarms are annoying and can happen any time.
Car alarms often go off as false alarms because their systems are too sensitive.
Once we realize a car alarm is not actually signaling a break in, we can more easily ignore it.
The more annoyed we are by them, the more they bother us.
If you shift your focus, you will notice the car alarm less and less.
Now let me rephrase them as our anxious “false alarm” thoughts.
Anxious thoughts are annoying and they can happen at any time.
Anxious thoughts are so loud because we’ve become hypersensitive to them.
Once we see our anxious thoughts as false alarms we can more easily ignore it.
The more annoyed we are by them, the more those feelings hang around and bother us.
- If we refocus on what we were doing when we had our anxious thoughts, we’ll notice them less and less.
As difficult as it may seem right now, anxious thoughts don’t have to take center stage when they arise. In order to allow them to fade into the background and eventually stop surfacing to begin with, practice labeling them false alarms. And then try your hardest to turn your attention away from them.
We can strengthen neural pathways of our choice by paying attention to what we want to pay attention to!