What’s the least helpful thing you can say to someone who is stressed and anxious? Just relax. Telling someone who is stressed to relax is like telling someone who wants to win the race to run faster. Obviously, if an anxious person could relax in that moment, she would do just that. And oftentimes, the harder someone tries to relax, the more anxious she becomes.
You could argue that the cure for anxiety isn’t more relaxation, but increased focus. Imagine you are threading a needle. If you are 100% focused on threading the needle, there is simply no room for anxiety to take hold. It’s when you lose focus on the task at hand that worry begins. What if I can’t thread this needle? What if I thread this needle but it doesn’t make a difference? What if I’m in the middle of threading it when a thunderstorm hits and the phone rings and . . . Anxiety is about distraction. It’s about trying to step outside of whatever moment so that you can narrate the moment internally, much like a sports announcer calling a play-by-play. Being self-conscious is not the same thing as being self-aware.
One simple and effective way to increase your focus is through meditation. The essence of meditation is about choosing something simple to focus on, and practicing this focus intentionally. Take your breath for example. Try sitting, with no external distractions, for just five minutes. Direct your focus at the physical sensation of your breath. Notice how your breath feels as it enters and leaves your body somewhere near the tip of your nose or your upper lip. Can you notice how your breath feels slightly cool when you breathe in, and slightly warm when you breathe out? Can you notice how your breath pauses for a split second between your inhale and exhale?
When you ask your mind to focus on one very specific item, it tends to rebel. When your mind wanders from your breath, starts thinking about your to-do list or the argument you had with your spouse last night, simply note the distraction. Note, but do not judge, as judgment is simply more distraction. When you realize you’ve become distracted, simply redirect your attention to the physical sensation of your breath. At first, you may have to do this again and again. It’s like training a puppy to heel. You keep bringing your mind back, and back, to your point of focus and eventually your mind learns to “walk” with purpose, without stopping to sniff at every distracting thought.
You can practice this daily, gradually increasing your meditation time. Consider a goal of meditating twenty minutes daily. The increased focus you are cultivating through meditation can be applied to any task. And any task performed with intense focus protects you from anxiety and the habitual chatter of your worried mind.