A reader of my articles recently asked me if I could write a post on breaking the habit of internally scanning and obsessing over our anxiety. Whilst this is not an easy task, it is pretty simple to explain.
First of all, let me explain what actually goes on when we are internally scanning our thoughts and symptoms. How did we get into this mess in the first place? Simply by perceiving our anxiety to be important and scary.
We become so much more invested in our internal world of thoughts, sensations and emotions and therefore we start to lose interest and connection to the external world.
I’m sure you know how scary, depressing, painfully frustrating and isolating this feels. We experience the same experience over and over again without any respite.
This is when our internal fixating on our anxiety becomes a habit. Habits are behaviours/actions which are repeated over and over again until they become deeply embedded pathways in our subconscious mind.
This is why we feel like we cannot stop ourselves from being so internally focused on our anxiety. It reaches the point where it just happens without any conscious control.
There is a solution to this though but it will not be easy. Easy for me to explain – yes, which will give you clarity and a sense of “knowing what to do” but it will take a bit of work to ultimately break this habit. I don’t want you to be afraid of your current experience. I know it’s awfully frustrating and annoying when your attention is constantly being pulled towards the anxiety, but it is just a habit and not some kind of psychotic illness. Most importantly, this habit can be broken.
How to break the habit of internally fixating on our anxiety
First of all, you bring your awareness to the fact you’re habitually fixating on your internal world of anxiety. You give up trying to reason with this fact. There’s no benefit in moaning about it because what’s happened cannot be undone… at least it can’t through complaining about it.
You give up trying to mentally stop yourself from fixating because doing this paradoxically places more emphasis on the anxiety. Right now, the norm for you is to constantly monitor your anxiety.
For you to fight against this current reality would be to create great suffering which is why accepting our present experience is paramount. With what I am going to share with you and as long as you constantly put it onto practice, the norm for you will be the opposite of what it is right now. You will be absorbed in the outside world instead of being pulled in by the anxiety.
You cannot get rid of a habit by fighting it. In order to get rid of a habit, you have to replace it.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller
Basically, you give up the fight of trying to stop yourself from internally fixating and allow the experience to continue. It’s already happening, so any amount of internal resistance will create even more physiological and emotional conflict.
The next step after you have surrendered your control to stop this habit is to focus externally on your surroundings and the things you are doing at present.
Makes sense really, doesn’t it? If, by habit, we are constantly absorbed in anxiety, then it makes sense to replace this habit by focusing our attention on the outside world and therefore, become absorbed by it as much as we can.
Before long, the force of this habit to internally fixate on our inner state starts to subside because by constantly shifting our attention, we are developing a new habit and replacing the current one by default.
This is because we are spending less and less time focusing internally, so the habit of doing so becomes weaker and the brain starts to deem it as unimportant. The outside world starts to become more interesting and important than that of our anxiety.
At the moment, it feels as if a strong magnetic force is pulling/dragging our attention onto our anxious thoughts and sensations without any doing on our part. This is exactly what it feels like when we are in the grip of a very powerful habit.
Thankfully, with a lot of practice, patience, perseverance and the passage of time, this strong habit can become weaker until it eventually becomes obsolete. The best way to speed up this process of replacing one habit with another is to focus on the things that you are naturally interested in. Something that you are not likely to become bored with.
For me, it’s learning new songs on guitar, watching movies, reading, listening to podcasts where they talk about my favourite topics, listening to music, drawing things I’m interested in, playing sports, eating out in restaurants etc etc.
To start with, it’s very, very likely that you attention will once again be pulled back onto the anxiety. Remember, that this is totally normal because it is habit to do so. The best response in this case is acceptance. Allow your attention to be habitually pulled back onto the anxiety whilst you gently bring your attention back to whatever it is you’ve chosen to do.
For example, imagine you are playing on a games console. Inevitably, your attention will go back onto the anxiety before long, maybe it’s always on it. If that is the case, keep projecting your consciousness outward onto the activity no matter what and how you feel.
If you are at the stage where you are not so deeply absorbed by the anxiety, then gently shift your attention back on the screen whenever your focus gets lost in anxious thought or overwhelmed by feeling.
Object focus meditation
Another practice you can do to bring your attention off your internal world of anxiety is to practice object focus meditation. For me, I practice this now because it gets me really present.
The object I use is a candle. All I do is light a candle and stare at the flame for 15 minutes. When I find my attention wondering or my eyes drifting onto another object, I gently bring them back onto the candle flame. It doesn’t matter if your mind is racing with “what if thoughts” or your body is plagued with uncomfortable sensations, if you practice this and keep practicing the things I’ve talked about, then you will be teaching your brain new habits.
You will be sending the signals to your brain that all is well. It will start to believe that you are safe and deem the anxiety as less important as a result of focusing on other things outside of yourself. Of course, it’s not going to feel natural at first and it probably won’t for a long time. However, it will eventually feel completely natural and good to do this.
Whatever we focus on, we give more life and power to. So, because you have started to break the habit of constantly fixating on the anxiety, it will start to retreat. The habit will crawl back into it’s “rendered obsolete” neural pathway and stay inactive whilst being engaged and connected to the outside world will become more and more normal and feel more and more effortless.
In a way, this whole process is a form of mastery. An art of continuously projecting our consciousness onto the external world which brings us into the present moment – the only place where life happens.
I trust you have enjoyed reading this post and I do hope it will contribute towards your recovery.
Until next time
Take care 🙂