Overcoming Anxiety through Observation

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny

My daily commute is pretty stressful: six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic, angry drivers, and a “Debris Challenge” as I circumnavigate random objects which appear on the freeway.  I was recently going nowhere fast (in spite of the 65 mph sign), when I noticed a new IHOP sign: not a new IHOP – a new IHOP sign.

The tiny analyst in my brain began doing the math.  I pass two IHOPs in my daily commute, so essentially four:  two on my journey in, and the same two on the way back.  If one estimates 260 workdays each year, that is over a thousand times each year that I pass these IHOPs.  And yet, it was only on this day I noticed not only a new logo, but it was smiling at me.  Something about that smiley face made me feel a little less aggravated about the endless sea of taillights ahead of me.  How had I failed to see it so many times before?

Although I am a fan of the cakes of pan, today’s post is not meant to peddle pancakes or advertise for IHOP.  Rather, that smiley face made the misery of a traffic jam less miserable; and it got me wondering what else I have been missing.  For instance, how many times have I walked from car to front door without noticing my jasmine was in bloom?

We can easily become so focused on simply trying to make it through the day that we become unable see those things which could make the day better.  Granted, everyone is susceptible to stress, but in people with depression it becomes absorbed and refined into chronic anxiety.  Still, something as seemingly insignificant as a smiley face on a sign can make a difference.  We can retrain our brains to absorb more positives and filter out more negatives, but this means we have to look for positives to input.

Seeing life sunny-side-up doesn’t come naturally for the depressive brain.  In fact, an overactive deep limbic system means the brain is predisposed to noticing the dark cloud behind every silver lining.  So, how can we begin to — as Johnny Mercer wrote — “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”?  Start by playing an observation game.

Ten Things…then Ten More Things

Pick a place you go frequently – it can be a coffee shop, work, the park, whatever – just someplace familiar to you.  When you reach your destination, write down ten things you saw on the way there.  Then, set your list aside until the next time you go back to that place.  When you arrive, write down ten things you saw on the way there, but without duplicating any of the items from the previous list.  This game is also helpful in staving off a panic attack.  Suppose you are in the bedroom when anxiety hits.  Go into the living room and write down ten things you see.  Now, go back to the bedroom and write ten more things you saw in the living room.

Focusing on what you saw earlier in the day or in the previous room allows you to shift activity out of the negativity and panic areas of the brain.  It enables you to direct your thoughts towards a specific outcome: ten things.  In other words, you are shifting your thoughts from the Problems area to the Problem Solving area.

Have fun with this!  You can try variations such as looking for ten blue things, or looking for ten animal references in signs you pass on the way to work.  The key is in observing more so you can begin to “eliminate the negative and latch onto the affirmative“.  Thank you, Johnny Mercer.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Overcoming Anxiety through Observation

  1. I feel like I am guilty of just trying to get through the day sometimes and not really taking my surroundings in. I’ve caught myself several times before noticing something for the first time that had always been there, kind of like you and the IHOP sign. I really like the way you explained this. Sitting here thinking about it, it ties in with mindfulness. Living in the present moment instead of in the past or future in your mind.

    Like

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