Paying Attention

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?

22 thoughts on “Paying Attention

  1. Litlove, this is so very interesting. And so very true. Who among us hasn’t had the experience of trying to sit down to write something (a school term paper, a report, a brief, a lecture, you name it) and it just seems overwhelming until we stop and step back for a bit. I’d never associated it with anxiety, but now that you mention it, that’s exactly its root. I am not much of a worrier, but my greatest anxiety was – and still is – associated with my chidlren. When they were small, I worried they would be kidnapped or harmed in some way; as they got older I worried about them driving or being out late at night. I asked Shorty when that sort of worry ended. She said, “Never. I still worry about you.” I do, however, try not to worry to distraction. I heard someone say 90% of what we worry about never happens. All wasted time. Good insight, Litlove. Enjoyed this post a lot.

  2. “When it comes to paying attention, anxiety is a really expensive form of mental activity.”
    So true! But what to do? Anxiety can be a good thing in that it means we are constantly evaluating things with reference to various internal checks and balances, but yes, it can also be utterly disabling, as you say, so much so that even the washing up is beyond us.
    Fascinating….but anxiety-making!

  3. That is just fascinating. I’m especially interested in the way you described the constant scanning as energy draining, and the never ending search for the danger even when possibilities are eliminated. Explained so clearly–so true. The human imagination, so fertile and creative, can become debilitating when used that way. Anxiety isn’t about what is, but what might be. It’s about what we haven’t yet found, what might possibly be the case either now, unknowingly, or in the future. Imagination gone haywire. The creativity that could be going into the manuscript or the cake goes into imagining what might go wrong. There is a resting place, I think, in focusing on what is in front of us and being confident that whatever shows up we can deal with then.

  4. Grad – oh the number of times I have been completely stopped in my tracks trying to write something not difficult, but emotionally taxing! I am a worrier; if I hadn’t already known how, having a child would have taught me. I feel happy, though, to insert myself into that continuum of mothers and children, and to become part of the chain of responsibility and love that causes the burden. There’s good company to be found there. 🙂

    Cornflower – if you ever find out the answer, I’d be tremendously grateful if you’d let me know! 🙂 My old tutor at college used to say worry that made you do something was good, but worry that stopped you from doing things was wrong. This was an excellent point but the line between the two is so easily crossed. And your last comment made me laugh – it’s so true!

    Lilian – I wrote about it as an academic, but you describe it as a writer – I love what you have to say about it. It IS imagination gone haywire – exactly that. Prophesy gone out of control, creativity turned into something dark and destructive. It’s hard to stop the spiral once it’s got a hold, and particularly when it touches a really tender anxiety, but I do believe in the benefits of simple, ordinary tasks, and as you rightly say, the real-ness of what’s right in front of our faces.

  5. I started anti-depressants last winter to cure loss of memory. So much worry about my son, my lost marriage, my unknown future, that memory (which hinges on focus) completely abandoned me. Aren’t we complicated layered beings?

  6. As a worrier, I can definitely relate. I think what has helped me is knowing that too much stimulation (in this case of the worrying kind) causes a kind of system failure. A moderate amount of anxiety is necessary for getting things done but it’s that constant scanning for danger which is so draining. Yet another reason to try and steer the middle course. Thanks for this. One to refer back to.

  7. Pingback: *Creativity « A Novelist’s Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

  8. So very interesting! Explains why I never did well on those big standarized tests and once came this close to failing a basic essay test I had to take in order to graduate from college. I was so worried about not doing well on it that I didn’t do well on it! I do find that distractions are the best thing for anxiety, doing household chores or simply going for a fast-paced walk.

  9. Openpalm – you poor thing. You so much need and deserve some peace of mind, some spaciousness, some respite. Some part of your mental faculties decided it might be found in a continuous present, free from the torment of the past and the future (memory is necessary for both to exist); it might not have been the best solution, but it meant well. I do hope you are feeling even just a little bit better now. When I lived in France, I had a fabulous philosophy teacher called Madame Pascaud whom I admired greatly. She just told stories to her classes and had them enthralled for hours at a time. Once she told us all about the time when she used to go completely blind in the afternoons – just the afternoons, but without fail – out of sheer stress. She was fine and fit as a fiddle when I knew her, but she evoked very clearly the terror of those days. May you similarly find your way out of the dark places and into a better, more congruent, more integrated landscape.

    Stefanie – oh I hear you on that one. I never did well in exams, and in later life all the publications I wrote for small articles, less significant books, came out just fine, whilst anything for an audience that mattered seemed to be strangled at birth. It is very difficult to free yourself from stage fright at all kinds of levels. Lilian’s post, which is linked to above, is very interesting on creativity and its obstacles.

  10. THis is so very interesting to me. My husband and son are both so anxious, and I am to a degree. It explains a lot to think about Zachary scanning for trouble in each situation, certain to find it.

  11. This is so interesting — particularly the link between anxiety and hypervigilance. As I’m sure you know, I’m very tightly-wound, and over the past few years have suffered greatly from the fact that it’s almost impossible for me to read, because I can’t let go of worrying about everything else going on around me. This has been a great loss to someone whose real life was in the written word for many many years … but anxiety has effectively changed my reality. And it’s a complete waste of time; my inability to read isn’t solving any of my other problems. Very frustrating.

  12. Funny you should post this about anxiety – I am about to travel to Greece with my three kids but without my husband and am anxiously thinking about worst-case scenarios (vigilantly scanning the horizon for danger already). However, have taken immense comfort in doing the laundry – repetitive, reassuring, easy. We now have a lot of clean clothes for our holiday.

  13. Poor Joseph Conrad! That sounds utterly debilitating. I think I tend more towards anxiousness, too, and maybe more so as an adult than when I was younger. It can be hard to focus on the task at hand at times–I think I let too many small things irritate me and keep me distracted, but then what is that saying about the task? I must be stressed over it–maybe I need to step back from things more than I do. Interesting post!

  14. Emily – we are all anxious in this family, too, only some hide it better than others! It’s always been especially distressing for me to watch my son’s anxiety as I so wish I could take it from him. He is getting better as he grows up, though, so I have my fingers crossed he’ll get to a good, steady place to be in the end.

    David – my heart goes out to you. I’ve also known just what it is to be so anxious that any kind of mental activity is out of the question, and it’s most upsetting. I do find that books on tape, listened to with earphones, can sometimes circumvent the problem. Having a voice speak right in my ear seems to capture my attention in a way that reading does not. But in any case, bon courage; I really do have every faith that you will find just the right way around your anxieties in time.

    Charlotte – oh my, I would be anxious too! But anticipation of these sorts of events is always the worst bit. As soon as you get en route, you will be fine. And if only I did something as tremendously useful as the washing when in a flap!! That would not only be calming, it would be sensible, too. 🙂

    Danielle – Poor old Joseph! You know, I’ve had days like that too. 😉 I am certainly more anxious now that I was as a teenager and a young woman. I hate to say it, but I do think I have a better idea of what to fear! But you’re quite right – the task has to be very well chosen to distract you from anxiety. It’s got to be easy to do, and fairly mindless, but it needs to be calming and compelling, too. Doing the supermarket shop sometimes works for me. The best thing is to be near someone calm, rational and unbothered, but it’s really hard to find that person just when you need them! 🙂

  15. As everyone else has already said, this is so interesting. And I can tell you, Litlove, I have definitely found it harder concentrating on one of the core activities of my life – reading – due to recent anxieties. I’ve been quite conscious of the fact that my wandering mind and nervously flicking eyes have those stresses as their motor. It’s fascinating and disturbing to see how quickly this devolves into a block to creative thought and deed. But eight hours to write 3 lines he’s not even happy with? Gosh, Joe, go fishing!

  16. Litlove – Very interesting, and the Conrad quote is terrific, and very familiar to me as a working method – just sit there and hope for the best, even though, as a method, it doesn’t work! My new thing currently is to get up and out and go to the gym. The gym is, of course, yet another form of torture, but at least one that is ‘good for me’ whereas sitting at my desk for 8 hours is anything but. Yikes! Kate Pullinger

  17. I love your Joseph Conrad quote. Change a few minor details and it’s me talking about writing my latest assignment. But seriously, I found this really interesting, and quite helpful.

  18. This is fascinating to me, because (unfortunately) I’m all too familiar with the effects of anxiety – both the free floating, and the focused variety. And as a musician I can certainly relate to the role of anxiety in performance. In the middle of performing, if I find myself “scanning the horizon” of the music, thinking ahead to those passages which are difficult, I’m certain to stumble somewhere along the way. I have to consciously rein in my thoughts – which is exactly the way I picture the process – and focus just on the measures I’m playing at the moment. Of course, all this happens in the matter of seconds. This whole process is less successful in real life, but I’m working at it!

    Marvelous post, and I’m keen to read this book.

  19. Doctordi – it’s funny, isn’t it, how reading which is such a calming activity, is also one of the first to be disturbed by anxiety. My mind wanders terribly, when there’s something scary on it. But I also agree that I don’t think I could manage to sit at my desk for eight hours and three sentences! 🙂

    Kate – how nice of you to visit! It takes way more self-control to get me to the gym than it does even to get me past a blank page, so you have my complete admiration. I’m very much looking forward to reading and reviewing your novel, The Mistress of Nothing, and I’m also glad to have found your blog now.

    Anonymous – lol! Now at least you can sit at your desk and think thoughts of comforting solidarity with Conrad, who managed to squeeze Heart of Darkness out somehow! 🙂 I found it very interesting myself, and I’m constantly looking for ways to gain a little control over those dark, unwieldy places of the mind.

    Becca – how interesting to hear you describe the effects of anxiety on performing. Yes, I can see exactly how that looking ahead could destabilize – like reading one’s notes too far ahead while giving a lecture. Actually, I learned how to give a lecture and think through two separate strands of thought at the same time. It was most exhausting. There must be hope if you can manage that sort of useless acceleration in the course of a performance, that it can be managed in life. If you find the trick as to how it’s done, I would be delighted to hear about it! 🙂

  20. Wow. I’m so glad to have read this, great post. This really helps me to understand why we do the things that we do. For example, I had some negative health results come in from a physical and it simply sent me over the moon with worry. I searched the internet until I was convinced I only had like 3 days to live…haha, now I know why I did that, it was because some primal hyper vigilent defense mechanism in my brain made obsessed with what could be wrong with me. I WANNA LIVE!!!!

    I guess this explain why some people take to cleaning like crazy people when they are upset. I suppose I should give that a try.

  21. Oh, I see myself in this post in all kinds of ways! It’s one reason I was terrible at sports as a kid — because I would get lost in my anxious thoughts and wouldn’t react in time when the ball was heading towards me. It’s interesting, though, that sometimes I’m a horribly anxious person and at other times I’m not — for example, I don’t have test-taking anxiety and so never experienced what Stefanie describes. But in other contexts I can’t think straight because of worry. I must have experience enough success in certain contexts that I’m okay with those, but not with others. Interesting!

  22. Sherid – I went through the same thing last summer and freaked out completely. I couldn’t read or sleep or think straight for weeks. And in the end I was fine, so I do hope the same will be true for you. But yes, the internet was my greatest friend at that point. I also cleaned more then than I’ve ever done before, but probably because there was nothing else to do! But it was very interesting to read this post and then almost see my mind in action as it hunts for things to confirm its fears. Look for the positive in my situation, is what I try to tell myself now. After all, why not? What is there to lose?

    Dorothy – isn’t it funny what triggers anxiety and what doesn’t? I spent my childhood running like mad from balls headed in my direction. But then I’m scared of tests too. In fact, I’m afraid of most things – I’m SUCH a wimp! 🙂

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