When we focus on what we don’t want, we just got it…

Recently, a client asked me to elaborate on what we at MINDStrain mean by threat monitoring as an ineffective coping strategy to try to avoid stress. This is what came out of that:

Our brain doesn’t understand the word “not”.

If I ask you not to think about a pink elephant, you automatically think about a pink elephant. It will pop up in your brain for a shorter or longer period of time.

It means that when we focus on what we don’t want, we have just received it. If, for example, we tell ourselves and each other that we don’t want to experience stress, we have just installed stress. What we focus on grows – regardless of whether we put “not” in front of it.

If we need a new car, and we are considering buying a Fiat 500, we will see Fiat 500 everywhere because we tune ourselves into this particular car. In the same way, we see strollers and pregnant bellies everywhere if we want a child.

With the best and most caring intention, we sometimes emphasize what we do not want. And thereby we end up magnifying it. If I’m on a diet and constantly tell myself that I’m not allowed to eat chocolate, I see chocolate bars everywhere.

Scanning for what we don’t want is called threat monitoring. We are constantly on the lookout for threats that can lead to what we want to avoid. It is highly counterproductive because we give focus to what we do not want, and thus it grows. It’s a vicious cycle.

Threat monitoring is a form of overthinking, and we cannot solve overthinking problems by thinking more. We can only solve it by thinking less about the subject in question.

When we want to think less about something, there is only one thing to do, and that is to shift focus onto something else. We need to find a different focus that grows, and in that way, we can control what comes to the foreground and what goes to the background. The focus we choose to bring to the foreground grows, and what recedes into the background fades away.

While you were reading this, you’re probably no longer thinking about a pink elephant. Exactly because you have shifted your attention.

Threat monitoring sometimes takes place collectively as a culture within a company. Preventative measures against stress, intended to monitor and mitigate potential threats, can sometimes have the opposite effect and actually exacerbate the issue.

If we train leaders to spot stress reactions, it may be helpful to teach them to look for maladaptive changes in behavior among employees. However, if this results in scanning for signs of stress, we have implemented threat monitoring in the organization, which is often an unintended consequence of stress spotting.

In this context of focusing on ‘stress spotting’, headaches, poor sleep, lack of energy, etc. can easily be perceived as stress reactions, even though they may be completely natural human fluctuations. Everyone has times when they feel more or less energetic, and we all experience fluctuations in sleep quality. It’s a human condition. If we interpret these fluctuations as signs of stress, we have first scanned for them, made them grow, and ended up creating stress by using the very methods we thought could prevent it.

Human beings are wired to monitor for threats when there is danger. If a lion suddenly growls in the corner, we need to be able to react. So we need to be alert in case something happens where it’s wise for us to react. If we overuse this ability, it turns into threat monitoring – and that is counterproductive.

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