The best way to use your anxiety: focus
I’ve had an anxiety disorder for over 12 years. That’s enough panic attacks, rapid heart rates, and heat flashes to learn a thing or two. While I’ve written about my anxiety disorder in the context of my faith, there are also some things I’ve learned that apply to anyone who struggles with anxiety. In this article, I’m offering you a tactic that continues to prove useful every day. From where I stand, it’s the best way to use your anxiety.
Energy Is Limited
Start with a simple truth: our energy is limited. We use our physical and mental energy to do pretty much everything. And yet there’s a limited supply. You might think of it like gasoline in a tank. You can use that tank of gas to get anywhere you want, but the gas is still limited. The energy in our mind is the same way. We have a limited supply.
A limited supply of mental energy means that we can’t focus on everything at once. Now, when we start feeling panic, we get a surge of adrenaline from that fight-or-flight instinct in order to help us focus on what to do in that moment. The adrenaline surge is supposed to help us, you know, fight or fly. The trouble is that someone with an anxiety disorder takes a perceived threat and magnifies it 1000 times. It’s not what we want to do; it just happens. It’s how we’re wired. With the adrenaline in our veins, we think that we have to fight or fly, when in reality there’s a third option: focus.
Fight, Fly, or Focus
That surge of adrenaline isn’t only useful for fighting or flying. In fact, when we don’t fight or fly, our system starts to reset itself (in most cases). That’s one of Barry McDonagh’s points in his book DARE. But in a moment of panic, we can use the extra energy our body has been given. We can use it to focus on something else.
Anxious energy is far more potent than caffeine. The adrenaline jacks up our whole body. We’re crazy-eyed and twitching, pulsing with life in a very uncomfortable way. But what if we took that crazy-eyed energy and focused it on something other than fighting or flying?
The possibilities are endless. I’ve used the extra energy and adrenaline from panic to focus intensely on a chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, to pay close attention to the words my wife is saying to me, or even to start outlining the next book I want to write. When channeled, the extra energy is like a laser beam, a sort of superpower.
And here’s the perk: if you use that extra energy to focus, then you won’t have as much energy to panic. Put differently, you can’t have a full-blown panic attack and pay equal attention to the words your wife is uttering about her latest business venture. You have 100% of mental energy to work with, not 200%. There’s only so much gas in the tank. And that means there’s a choice. When panic hits, we feel as if there isn’t a choice, as if we’re forced to seize up. But the choice is there. And the choice you make affects what your mind does with its energy, its limited fuel supply.
In my experience over the last 12 years, when I intensely focus on something else, the anxiety begins to subside. It may not entirely disappear, but it casts less of a shadow on me. The black cloud of threat turns light gray. And the exciting part is that I can do things with my focusing superpower that I ordinarily couldn’t.
No Magic Pill
Focus isn’t a magic pill, of course. It’s not that as soon as you start thinking about character development in The 100, your anxiety will dissipate (by the way, all the characters seem to follow little patterns of creation-fall-redemption). But that does happen often. I’m simply offering one strategy that’s proved effective in my own life for over a decade. It’s one strategy among many. In much of my writing, I talk about the usefulness of anxiety in forming our souls. I’ve also spent time in counseling, and I take medication as directed by a doctor who knows me well. I also have an amazing wife who always encourages me to talk things through with her. My point is, focus isn’t a silver bullet for anxiety. But maybe it’s a bronze one. Maybe it’s a superpower we keep overlooking.
Humans are limited, and I actually think that’s a good thing. If our energy is limited, that means we can’t devote all of it to our panic all the time. We have to make choices about where our energy will go. They may be very, very difficult choices, but they’re still choices. And once you start experimenting with this, I think you’ll enjoy your newfound superpower.