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Alleviating anxiety by putting things into perspective

A behavioral and brain scientist puts a new twist on the age-old advice of "putting things into perspective."

We often hear a common antidote to alleviating our anxiety: put things into perspective.

Sure. Easy enough, right?

Not exactly.

Let’s think about this for a moment. What does it mean to “put things into perspective”? It’s expounded from all corners of the internet, serving as the go-to mantra for self-help gurus. But as a behavioral scientist, I’m not sold. In most cases, it’s a vague, blanket style statement that carries little practical meaning. It doesn’t do much at all for reducing a person’s anxiety. And anxiety, we know, is best resolved through actionable coping-based tactics.

But let’s not give up on it just yet. There’s good stuff in there. It just requires us digging a little deeper into what we mean, exactly, when we say “put things into perspective.” As always, it starts in the brain.

The anxious brain and perspectives

The piece that we need to understand is that the brain’s default is to process stressors in relation to the self. The innate response is to evaluate all possible negative events as something that’s directly relevant for the self. To the anxious brain, it’s always “me! me! me!” We call this egocentric stress, and it’s a hindrance to our basic psychological functioning.

At its worst, egocentric stress can be highly debilitating and distressing. Interestingly enough, it happens because of one area in the brain: the medial frontal gyrus (MFG). The MFG covers a swath of spongy brain folds on the outside middle region of the frontal lobe. It is the seat of our identity. It is your “you.”

The MFG’s anatomical location in the brain with respect to its neighboring brain areas is rather interesting (but unfortunate). Below the MFG are the negative emotion areas; on one side are evaluative areas; and on the other side are the attention areas. It’s a clustered network of brain regions that fire together, so that any time a potentially bad situation happens, it is automatically considered:

– Emotionally charged (emotion areas)
– Evaluated (evaluative areas)
– Focused on (attentional areas)

And most of all,

– Personally relevant (MFG region)

This default structure of the brain can lead to rumination. A person may shift attention back to the anxiety, over and over again, leading to a dysregulated emotion-based processing. In fact, people suffering from depression tend to have hyper-activation in these brain areas.

So, why all this brain talk? Because “putting things in perspective” ultimately means rewiring the MFG and its neighboring connections. It means engaging in strategies and tactics that separate the You from the anxiety. 
Putting thing into (time) perspective

Scientific evidence says a highly effective way to pull ourselves away from the negative event (and thus reduce anxiety) is to alter your perspective on time. We humans are highly skilled in mental time travel. It’s called “chronosthesia” and it’s the brain’s natural ability to be constantly aware of past and future versions of ourselves. It’s believed to be the basis of human consciousness – what separates us from our closest primate relatives.

It’s important to understand that when we recall (the past) or forecast (the future), we do so in varying degrees of temporal/psychological distance. We can think of events that happened yesterday, a week ago, a decade ago, and so on. Likewise, we can imagine a future of tomorrow, next month, or twenty years from now.

Not all temporal distances are during mental time travel are equally effective for changing perspectives. Distant memories/predictions are “lived” in the mind’s eye through on observer or objective perspective. Whereas near memories/predictions are “lied” more in a subjective or first-person perspective.

What this means, then, is that separating yourself from anxiety (i.e., “putting things into perspective) is best done by generating experiences that are more distant in your mind. Here are a few exercises that you can try out.

Future/retro reflection: This one requires some mental time gymnastics. Let’s get “meta” for a sec.

Imagine yourself and your life a year from now. You might not know exactly what this will look like, but do your best to envision what you might be doing, how you’ll be behaving, who you’ll be interacting with, etc. Get as concrete and specific as you can. The goal here is to simply see your future self as some objective individual. Then, pretend that your future self is looking back at the current moment and to the situation that’s causing you stress or anxiety.

Answer the following questions using this perspective change: 

  1. How does your current self feel about the stress you’re encountering at this moment? Write out the emotions you’re experiencing.
  2. How would you rate your stress right now (on a scale of 0 to 10)?
  3. How does your future self feel about the current stressful situation? Write out the emotions you think this future “You” would experience.
  4. What things can you imagine your future self knows that you current self doesn’t? Can your current self come to know these things?
  5. How would your future self rate the stress (on a scale of 0 to 10)?
  6. Are these ratings different? Are you noticing the anxiety subside?

Past-self think back: Recall a situation in the past, say about a year ago, in which you were dealing with a similar stress as you are now. Answer the following questions:

  1. At its highest, how bad was the anxiety back then? What would your past self have rated the stress (on a scale of 0 to 10)?
  2. How long did the anxiety stick around for?
  3. At what point did it eventually subside/get resolved? How did it get resolved?

As before, answer these questions with as much specificity as you can. Mental time travel is most effective when concrete details are recollected. Doing so helps trigger episodic memory – the memory system that provides detailed episodes of past events and gives you a sense of what exactly was done. Tap into your episodic memory with the following prompts: 

  1. ·Actions that were taken
  2. · People you spoke with
  3. · Emails you would have sent (and to whom)
  4. · Shows you watched
  5. · Podcasts you listened to
  6. · Information you learned
  7. · Meetings you had

Recap and wrap-up

When you’re experiencing stress, pulling yourself out of the present is an effective strategy. It causes rewiring in the medial frontal gyrus (MFG) which allows you to “see” yourself (from the past or in the future) as more objective and less subjective. It results in a response where your stress gets experienced in a more impartial, less emotional way. You’re wiser through gaining a different view.

So at this point you’ve not just heard the line “put things into perspective” – you’ve actually gone and done it.

That’s the real difference.

Nick is a behavioral and brain scientist whose research creatives and leaders improve their peak psychological functioning. Come say hello to him here, and get the newest action-packed insights from leading science research.

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