Lesson #1 for overcoming anxiety: Anxiety is a matter of perspective. Change your perspective and you get rid of your anxiety. Easy enough, right?
It’s perhaps the hardest thing to do.
So it’s frustrating when we read articles or posts where all that’s said is “change your perspective,” and that’s it. What are you supposed to do with this?
In this post, we get into the nitty gritty by offering tactical lessons that tackle how it’s possible to actually change your perspective, and as a result, overcome anxiety.
With enough time, we can all figure out financial analytics; or learn how to use cryptocurrency; or master the game of SEO. Figuring out technical skills — no problem.
But when it comes to the advice of “changing our perspective” and managing anxiety … well, even the smartest, most disciplined of us struggle with this.
We’ll begin with the underlying reason for why this process is so difficult.
Hint: It has to do with the brain and its stubborn ways.
Armed with the science basics, we’ll then walk you through the 2 ways for altering your perspective, rewiring the default brain modes, and alleviating stress and anxiety. These tactics are called perspective levers (or PLs for short). The 2 main PLs are:
- PL time: Separate yourself by engaging in effective mental time travel.
- PL thinking: Separate yourself by thinking more concretely and with greater attention to detail.
You can rest assured knowing our team of PhD psychologists and serial entrepreneurs have gone through hundreds of academic papers on the topic. We have distilled the leading research findings and serve it up to you for your stress-reducing benefit. Let’s get started.
Understanding the brain to help put things into context
What does it even mean to “change your perspective”? It’s one of those phrases we see getting tossed around all the time. But few people really understand it.
To get a handle on it, we need to begin with the brain. Specifically, we need to take a look at how the brain processes anxiety in relation to the self.
The brain is incredibly sensitive. Its default, go-to response is to relate all possible sources of stress back to the self. To the brain, it’s always “me! me! me!” But this isn’t a good thing. This type of egocentric stress is the worse kind of anxiety to have. It’s a hindrance to our daily functioning because it pulls us away from our usual tasks and behaviors.
We can blame this on one area in the brain: the medial frontal gyrus, or MFG. See that red wedge of spongy brain folds in the image below? That is the seat of our identity. It’s what gives you the sense of “you” (amazing right?).
The MFG’s placement in relation to other brain regions is interesting (but unfortunate): Right below are the negative emotion-related areas; on one side are the evaluative-related areas; and on the other side are attention-related areas. All these network-dense brain areas talk to one another. This means that any potentially bad situation we encounter becomes:
1. emotionally charged and stressful (“I feel that … ”)
2. evaluated (“this is bad … ”)
3. focused on (“… really bad …”)
And most of all …
4. personally relevant (“… and for me and my situation especially!”)
This unfortunate default structure/setup in the brain causes us to ruminate and relay all bad things back to our sense of self. Our attention gets directed to the stress over and over and over again. This dysregulation creates a dangerous neural feedback loop. In fact, people who suffer from depression show increased activation in these brain areas. This causes them to focus more on potentially negative situations, to see them as emotional, and to see them as particularly relevant to them and their life.
Now, getting back to the perspective part. Changing perspective means rewiring the medial frontal gyrus part of the brain – remember, that red spongy part, and the seat of the self. It means altering our behaviors and cognition to separate our sense of self from the stress. This becomes an effective method for coping with different sources of anxiety.
With these 2 perspective levers (PL tools), you can train that part of your brain to be less sensitive to negative situations. It’s a form of emotion management that you can implement on a daily basis to separate you, and your brain, from the anxiety.
Here are the 2 PLs.
1. PL Time: Manage anxiety by having a different perspective on time
We humans are remarkably skilled at mental time travel. The fancy term is “chronethesia” — or, the brain’s ability to allow us to be constantly aware of the past and the future.
When we remember (past events) or forecast (future events), we can do so through varying degrees of temporal or psychological distance. In other words, they can be near or far in distance.
For instance, you can remember the investor meeting that happened yesterday (near) versus the investor meeting that happened 6 months ago (far). And though they may have been virtually identical, you experience them differently. Same goes for projecting yourself into the future. Imagining yourself doing a PR interview tomorrow (near) versus a PR interview in 6 months from now (far) generates a different mental experience altogether.
These differences can be utilized for a change in perspective, which can help pull your sense of self away from the stress. The key is this: Distant memories/forecasts are “lived” in the mind’s eye through an observer or objective perspective. While near memories/forecasts are “lived” more in a subjective or first-person perspective.
In order to separate yourself from stress, you want to generate experiences that are, in your mind, more distant in either the future of the past. Here are some tactics to help you go the distance and separate yourself from the stress.
1. Future-self retro method: Imagine yourself and your business in a year from now. Yes, of course the future is uncertain and anything can change. But we can, to a certain degree, envision what things will be like and how you’ll think/behave. Now, as your future self, imagine you’re looking back to this time and to the situation that’s causing you stress. Write out answers to the following questions:
- What does your future self think about the current (stress) situation?
- What’s the stress rated now (0-10 scale) versus what’s the stress rated by your future self? Has the anxiety subsided?
- What does your future self know compared to your currents self?
2. Letter to the future: Write a letter to your future self explaining the situation as you’re experiencing it right now. Rate the anxiety (from 0-10 scale), describe the thing(s) that’s causing you stress and how you think it’ll change in the future. Once you’re finished with the letter, read it as if you’re your future self. This will pull you away from the stress/situation.
3. Past-self think back method: Recall a situation in the past, no less than a year ago, where you were dealing with a similar stress. Write out the answer to the following questions:
- At its peak back then, how bad was the anxiety? What would your past-self have rated it (0-10 scale)?
- How long did the anxiety and stress persist?
- At what point did it subside?
For all these tactics, be as specific as possible. During mental time travel, being specific and using concrete details triggers episodic memory. These detailed “episodes” give you an exact sense of what was done (for past) or what could be done (for future). To help with this, think about the following specific episodic details:
- actions taken
- people spoken to
- meetings had
- emails sent
- research completed
- knowledge gained
- podcasts listened to
For example, you might be stressed about falling behind a project deadline as you approach a big opportunity with the next round of funding. If thinking about past similar experiences, what did you do exactly. Who did you meet with? What did you discuss? How many meetings did you have? How did you problem solve with your co-founders?
Pulling yourself out of the present when you’re stressed can be an effective strategy. It causes a rewiring in the brain which leads you to “see” yourself (from the past or in the future) as being more objective and less subjective. The result: You can orient to your stress from a more impartial, less emotional way. It’ll give you clarity of judgment and a change in perspective.
2. PL Thinking: Manage anxiety by having a different perspective on thinking
A lot of who we are and what we do comes down to the attention we give our thoughts. William James, father of psychology, said it best when he wrote that attention “is taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”
Our attention has the capacity to shift to one of many “objects or trains of thought.” A key point is this then: A shift in thinking is a change in perspective.
So you want to change your thinking to be MORE of a concrete mindset and LESS of an abstract mindset. First, let’s explain what we mean by concrete versus abstract thinking:
- Concrete thinking mindset:
- A type of low-level thinking
- A mindset that encourages detail-oriented or activity-based attentional processing
- Thinking that focuses on the “how” of a situation
- Yes, ideal for managing anxiety
- Abstract thinking mindset:
- A type of high-level thinking
- A mindset that encourages big-picture thinking and overall narrative-based attentional processing
- It’s about focusing on the “why” of a situation
- No, not ideal for managing anxiety
Part of the reason why abstract thinking isn’t ideal for managing anxiety is because it causes us to over-generalize (eg “I suck at this, which means I suck at everything”) and over-stabilize (eg “I suck at this, which means I’ll always suck at it”).
Now that you know the difference between the two, the next thing to do is to get a baseline measure of your default concrete/abstract style of thinking. Go to the following sheet and follow the instructions (it’ll take you no more than 3 minutes). When you’re done, come back here.
Okay, welcome back. What’s your score? This number tells you the likelihood that you have a concrete thinking style. Here’s what your score means in relation to others:
- 0-5: extremely low in concrete construal
- 6-11: moderately low in concrete construal
- 12-18: average in concrete construal
- 19-25: high in concrete construal
If you’re in the bottom two ranges, you should pay close attention to these tactics. Your natural disposition makes you a “why” abstract-type of person. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it comes with a lot of benefits and strengths. But in terms of managing stress and coping with anxiety, it’s better to take a “how-to” concrete approach.
So, if you’re trying to better manage your anxiety, you’ll need to “get low” and more concrete. You know the old saying, “see the forest for the trees?” Well not here. You want the trees. More trees the better.
4 tactics for overcoming anxiety by utilizing concrete thinking
1. Generate subordinate exemplars. Go to this random word generator to get your word. For each word you see, come up with an exemplar category label. So, if the word is “fruit” list off as fast as possible exemplars that fit that category (e.g., apple, orange, banana, etc.). Take 10 sec per word and quickly move onto the next. Do this for 5 minutes and you’ll enter into a more concrete construal state.
You can also do this as you go about your day. Between walking to meetings or while in transit, take a look at your surroundings. As you observe, ask yourself: “An example of [what you’re observing] is what?” (e.g., a seat is … a sofa, a bench, a rocking chair, etc.). This can be a simple mental exercise. Simply riff these off the top of your mind as you go about your day. At the same time, do NOT ask questions like “[what you’re observing] is an example of what?” (e.g., A streetcar is an example of mode of transit.). This primes abstract “why” thinking. You want to stay away from this.
2. List the means of an action (NOT the ends). Ask yourself about what you did the day before. Write down what you did to achieve those tasks. If you had a meeting across town, you would write “walked to the station; rode the subway; timed my trip by looking at Google maps; paid $3 for an Americano.” You would NOT do the “ends” analysis, which would be “met to discuss potential partnerships; expanded my network; improved my inbound marketing skill-set.” Simply thinking in “means” to the action also helps to get you into concrete construal mindset. It’s super easy and effective!
3. Explain a detailed mechanism (that you understand). Think of a concept or system and represent it in your mind in a concrete explanatory way. Then go and explain that thing to someone. Talk out loud about it to that person and get into the details of the underlying mechanisms. This leads to this, which turns on the system to this, which downstream influences this in this particular way, and so on. Do NOT attempt to do so with something you don’t fully understand. What will happen is you’ll default to representing that thing in your mind as more abstract — and remember we want concrete!
4. Limit your mind wandering. Mind wandering has been linked to greater stress and negative emotions. First, see how you compare to others in your ability to focus and stop your mind from wandering. Take this online test and follow the instructions. It only takes about 3-5 minutes. You’ll get a personal score at the end and compared to the average. Depending where you fall, you might need to give this one special attention. Here are some tools and mental exercises you can do to prevent mind wandering during times of stress:
- Listen to background instrumental music. Apps and programs like Focus@will and brain.fm are great tools that you can use. They allow you to tailor the style of music to your personal strengths and taste. It’s been shown that such music can limit mind wandering and boost mood. Throw on the tunes with some noise-canceling headphones and you’re golden!
- Get your sleep! Fatigue and lack of sleep is linked to an increased mind wandering. The average sufficient sleep is about 7-8 hours of uninterrupted snoozing.
- Do games for executive function training. These help exercise your cognitive ability and prevent mind wandering from happening. Try this one out.
Recap and wrap-up
Changing perspective to better manage your stress is a difficult task. But it can be done. The key is understanding what actually happens in the brain during anxiety, and why a “change in perspective” makes sense from this neuroscience view.
In this post, not only did we offer this view, but we gave you science-backed tactics/tools related to your changes in perspective. These help minimize activation in the “you” part of the brain (remember that red wedge area) so that the anxiety feels apart from your sense of “me” and “mine.”
Remember these two perspective levers as part of your anxiety management protocol:
- PL Time is a way that you can pull yourself out of the present moment and to get you to orient to the source of stress in a more objective, third-party way. Remember you want the distant time travel to be far in the distant, not so near. Try the look-back methods to ask yourself how your past or future self would relate to the stress you’re feeling presently.
- PL Thinking is a way to change perspective by changing the focus of your thoughts. Strive for low-level, concrete thinking (versus abstract thinking). Do writing exercises where you do a means-analysis while ignoring the ends of an event/situation. Go around and look for subordinate exemplar items that are a part of a broader category. Remember, this helps with exercising concrete construal and can be useful for altering focus/perspective. A simple change in focus means you’re less tied to the anxiety itself.
To return to our initial point, it is true that changing perspective doesn’t have a simple turn-on-switch solution. But with the right tools, and applied in the right way over time, you’ll learn that it can be done. You’ll learn that changing perspective means habitually separating out the “you part of the brain” from the source of anxiety.
Then you’ll realize that without the “you” attached to the anxiety, it’s no longer your anxiety.