In every situation in life, we have the choice of where to put our attention. It comes down to three main options. We can put our attention on ourselves, the task we’re doing or our environment. In research terms, we call those three options self-focused attention, task-focused attention and environment-focused attention.
Self-focused attention is defined as attention towards aspects of yourself which aren’t necessary to perform a task, such as your arousal (am I blushing?), your emotions (do I feel anxious?), your private self (how am I doing?) or public self (how do others see me?).
Task-focused attention is defined as attention towards whatever you are doing or whatever is necessary for a specific task (typing a compelling story, facilitating a meeting at work, talking self through a challenge), including paying attention to the other people that may be in that situation (why did Joe do this and not that?).
Environment-focused attention is attention put on those aspects of the environment which aren’t necessary to perform the task. It’s attention on the place where you are or the things that are around you (the conference room, restaurant or how hot it is).
These 3 delineations are important to point out because we get into ruts with where we put our attention. And then those ruts start steering our ship and guiding our reactions to things.
Often when we’re having a hard time with anxiety, we’re caught in a self-focused attention rut.
We’re caught thinking inwardly on things that aren’t necessary to what we’re doing or need to do. Many times we’ve misjudged these things as helpful. But in reality they are only helpful if we can touch on them and then turn our attention back outward. With anxiety we get super-glued to our inner world and feel as if it is our only choice.
If you’re super-glued to self-focused attention here are 3 things to try to loosen its grip:
Recognize that you have a choice as to where you put your attention. You can put it on yourself, your task or your environment. With anxiety, it’s hard to feel we have this choice…
Notice where you tend to put your attention throughout the day. Notice where you put your attention when you’re feeling stressed out, sad or anxious.
Experiment with changing your focus. If you’re focusing on your environment shift it to your emotions (self). If you’re focusing on what people will say about you (self) change it to the task you’re working on.
The more you practice noticing where your attention is and consciously changing your focus, the more you’ll be able to shift your attention outward when you’re anxious.