I’ve become interested in our powers of concentration lately, through being interested in creativity and art and motherhood, and all those other mentally challenging tasks, and I’ve been reading a most fascinating book: The Psychology of Concentration in Sport Performers by Aidan Moran. The author suggests that attention boils down to three main functions – our ability to focus (often imagined as a beam of light, like a laser, illuminating the task at hand), our ability to multi-task (like driving a car and keeping up a conversation at the same time, thus diverting mental energies in different directions) and our ability to be alert and vigilant. What I became particularly interested in, however, was the affect of anxiety on our chances of performing these functions well.
I imagine that most people have suffered the experience of being completely and utterly distracted by worry. I can remember several occasions when I had to teach students, having left my small son ill at home, usually in the safe hands of my husband or my mother, but still. It was almost impossible to concentrate on the task at hand at all. But the book is more interested in the anxiety that can seep into sports performance and cause the competitor to ‘choke’. Good performance depends on a kind of multi-layered congruence. If we are thinking about the same thing we are doing, then we can maintain our level of concentration. But when we are anxious, often provoked precisely by trying too hard to do well, we forget to look outwards to the task, but become distracted by looking inwards instead, towards worry, fear, demanding expectations. We start to think about ‘task-irrelevant’ things, using up vital mental energy (which research suggests is finite in relation to separate kinds of tasks) processing old self-doubts and uncertainties. And this does take up a lot of cognitive resources, with the consequence that the more a task requires our attention, the easier it is to derail it with anxiety. When it comes to paying attention, anxiety is a really expensive form of mental activity. No wonder our experience of doing those difficult chores is unpleasant – we’re already crippling ourselves thinking about how hard it is to do, how we’ve failed in the past, and how conscious we are of lacking the mental resources to accomplish it, resources we are busily employing in the much easier task of fretting.
But what really puts the boot in, as far as attention is concerned, is anxiety’s hallmark reaction of hyper vigilance. When we become anxious, we start to scan the environment rapidly, deeply, sensitively, looking for traces of anything threatening. Multi-tasking dies a death because all our mental resources are plowed into this highly diverting mental energy sink. People who are generally anxious find it much harder to concentrate than people who aren’t because their resources are always already involved in this kind of perpetual scanning. Looking for trouble, in other words. But what laboratory results prove, is that looking for trouble is only a brief prelude to finding it. Once anxiety has been triggered, the mind becomes excessively sensitive towards all threat-related cues in the environment. In other words, we ignore what might calm us down, in preference to focusing on what winds us up. And if we haven’t found cause for alarm, the mental response is simply to look harder, to process more finely. The mind is set up in this mode to maximize the possibility of detecting and locating threats, and the more anxious we are, the more primed we are to the presence of what scares us. So, what this means is that anxiety becomes always a self-fulfilling prophesy. What began as a necessary and useful response of self-protectiveness has become a tool with which we quickly and efficiently disable ourselves, a prey to our fears and hypnotized by them.
Hence: swine ‘flu. Having been alerted to its presence as a potentially lethal disease, we now find it almost impossible to accept it may turn out to be like any other strain of ‘flu, an illness which regularly kills people, only the media didn’t realize it would terrify the living daylights out of us to know that. Now the media has caught on. It doesn’t matter what articles actually say about swine ‘flu, the sheer fact of keeping the words in the anxious parts of our minds is enough to make us want to know more, to keep processing information, to remain hyper-vigilant. And so the media is happy to oblige, feeding our anxieties as it is commercially valuable to them. When the reports say that for most people ‘it’s just a bad cold’, it depends on how anxious we are about our health as to whether we can literally hear that or not. Anxiety actively seeks bad news and will instantly dismiss the good as being of no use to it, as not saying what it wants to hear.
So is all this going to prevent me from being so anxious? I’ll tell you when I stop hyperventilating, ha ha. No, but seriously, what people need to do when anxiety strikes is quite straightforward: remember the task in hand. Performing simple tasks, not ones that require huge amounts of concentration, and ideally tasks at which we are quite practiced, is the way to conquer the vicious circle of negative thoughts. Anxiety is a parasite, draining our mental resources, sapping our emotional energy and all for no gain whatsoever. It just makes us perform worse at everything useful we want to do. My interest in all this started with creativity, and the new information about anxiety made me read differently this passage from a letter by poor old Joseph Conrad: ‘I sit down religiously every morning, I sit down for eight hours, and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day of eight hours I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. Sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to restrain myself from butting my head against the wall. After such crises of despair I doze for hours, still held conscious that there is a story that I am unable to write.’
Now, what this makes me wonder is whether he wouldn’t have got on a lot better if, after an hour or so, he’d put down his pen and done the washing up?