Attentional Narrowing

Attentional narrowing is a natural consequence of anxiety, because anxiety is about threat, and threat requires a response, and not just any response, but the best response. When threatened, all your cognitive resources must quickly be brought to bear in order to deal with the threat. Think of your attention as your radar system. Once the threat is detected by your radar, your radar homes in on the threat. You begin paying very close attention, assessing the threat and monitoring it for new developments.

As your attention narrows, everything else—such as the events of your ordinary life—just naturally falls away. You can’t think about anything but the threats, and the threats seem to absorb your total attention.

Anxiety about Anxiety

One important consequence of attentional narrowing is anxiety about anxiety. Your anxiety may have started with a health scare, with an upcoming final exam, with a relationship conflict, but with anxiety about anxiety, the symptoms become so aversive that anxiety itself is detected as threat. Now your anxiety has become self-sustaining, its own vicious circle. This is a whole new level of suffering, where anxiety no longer requires anything outside itself, no life domain, to keep going.

Your begin to monitor your systems very closely. Your voice trembles, and you wonder whether your anxiety is intensifying. You go to a party, feel dizzy, start shaking, and eventually decide to leave. What if somebody notices? Your whole world narrows down, maybe to the point that its hard to leave the house. You wake up each morning, check the symptoms in your body, and wonder “How’s the anxiety going to be today?”

Because its anxiety that scares you, symptoms easily escalate to the point that they cause panic attacks. You start monitoring your heart, to the point that any uncertainty about its rate or rhythm escalates to panic proportions. “Oh God, my heart…I think I just noticed something with my heart.” As you pay closer and closer attention, your heart indeed begins to beat faster, which confirms your suspicion, which causes your heart to beat faster, which eventually produces a panic attack, a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recycling Negative Automatic Thoughts

When your attention is narrow down to just the negative, you begin to obsess about the negative. That’s because your own thought process becomes aversive, simply because your thought process focuses so much on worries, catastrophes, your helplessness, your hopelessness, your pessimism about having any kind of a future, people you’ve failed because of your anxiety, the increasing strength of the symptoms, and so on. All of these thoughts are detected as threats. Your system is mobilized by arousal to respond to them, but it’s impossible, because they just keep cycling through your awareness.

Positives become Inaccessible

A second consequence of attentional narrowing: When your attention shrinks down, you don’t notice any of the good things in life. Gratitude becomes impossible. You’re not thinking about all the people that love you. When you do think about them, you’re thinking you might be a disappointment, because of the anxiety. Have a great spouse or great kids? Doesn’t matter, because the kids are too loud sometimes and your throat is tightening up. Have a great job? You’re not grateful to your boss, whose gracious and understanding only increases your guilt. Sure, your coworkers are compassionate, but that they might see you sweating and shaking in the next meeting. Have a hobby you absolutely love? Irrelevant, because you’re far too distracted by your own catastrophic thoughts to enjoy it.

Life Goals Whither Away

As anxiety increases and your attention shrinks down, everything stalls. Your aspirations in life go on the back burner. Eventually, the best things about your life no longer seem to exist. They become imperceptible, not because they’re so tiny or so few, but because they’re not on your radar. Only your anxiety is on your radar. Your mind is infected by an alien entity against which you fight endless exhausting battles, hoping your resistance holds out. Whereas you once had goals and a roadmap, places that you wanted to take your life, now your anxiety has become self-sustaining, driven by its own symptoms—or actually by your anticipation and dread of the symptoms—anxiety about anxiety. Your symptoms don’t even need a trigger from your health, work, or relationships to make themselves known. They just show up. This is the long-term cost of anxiety, because it takes you out of your life.

Every human being wants to realize their own unique potential. So do you. Take a moment and ask “What would you be doing without your anxiety?” The answer is a measure of what you’re missing out on, of how much your life has shrunk down. These are the things you want to get back, things that make life meaningful. Can’t think of anything? Well, that’s a measure of how much anxiety has suppressed your awareness of your life goals: You don’t have any.