I think we can all agree that 2020 was quite the year of change, discomfort, and reflection (to say the least). Reflecting back, one of the more important things I learned from the past year is how our emotions impact our attention.
In March when the pandemic hit, it was accompanied by a cast of uncertainty, confusion, and worry. In a matter of weeks, millions of people went from living their normal lives to being stuck at home. Many of us had to figure out how to work from home and many lost our jobs entirely. Gyms, restaurants, and local shops closed their doors, and life as we knew it became radically different.
We all deal with uncertainty differently; but let’s just say there were a lot of coping cookies, pizzas, and other baking projects going on for Amy and me in 2020.
How Our Emotions Impact Our Attention
While all the baking helped get us through it, things overall might not have been handled completely rationally; and that is often what happens during emotional dysregulation. It looks different for each person, although emotional dysregulation can result in being in a mild or greater state of panic or anxiety. It often results in not being grounded, and therefore, being more susceptible to distractions and more impulsive choices. Sometimes, it can be not knowing what to do to improve a situation but also trying a lot of different things at the same time.
Thinking back, I made connections on why daily things that came easily before became so difficult back in March 2020. Certain productive practices in my life suddenly went off the rails. My thoughts ping-ponged all over the place. I bounced from one thing to the next instead of slowing down and doing one thing at a time. I was, as I imagine many others were, all over the place. It’s only now that I’m able to look back and grasp a deeper understanding of what exactly was going on during those early months of the pandemic.
A key part of emotional dysregulation is not being aware of what you’re feeling and going into a coping mode that can manifest in many ways. This is how emotions can impact our attention and ability to focus—regardless of whether you’re aware of it or not.
The Twitch Can Often Look Like Coping
I’ve realized the ways in which we cope with difficulty can look a lot like the Twitch. More social media time to fight the feelings of isolation. More impulsive purchases. Lots of news scrolling in an attempt to address questions left unanswered.
Checking for new information (what we call the Newsfeed Twitch) was extremely prevalent for us in March and April of last year. One of the ways many of us try to cope is by constantly checking Twitter, Reddit, or the news in our efforts to try to control the uncertainty.
When getting out of hand, these behaviors tend to be rooted in anxiety, fear, and emotional dysregulation. There is a ton of overlap between what I call the Twitch and the coping behaviors we do during emotionally difficult situations. Looking at the overlap helped me understand that the buzzing, distractible, bouncy-ball brain that I’d get during certain times actually had a lot to do with anxiety and emotional dysregulation.
And it was this realization that led to the insight that when we are feeling distracted, when we keep looking at Instagram, or when it’s hard to focus, there’s likely something that we’re afraid of in some way. Perhaps it’s a task or a project that’s personally meaningful. Maybe it’s a task or deliverable that you’re dreading because someone important will be judging it. Or we want to start writing the book we’ve always wanted to write, but we can’t get started. We conveniently get distracted or something comes up that prevents us from working on the thing that’s important to us.
It’s important to remember that not all social media checking or purchases are necessarily coping or a Twitch in general—it’s perfectly fine to do these things! For me, this is about coming to a deeper understanding of what is happening when these particular things get out of hand. More importantly, it’s about how we can address the situation moving forward. There’s no shame in distractions; they can be helpful in getting through things that we might not be ready to deal with otherwise.
Fear Is A Powerful Emotion
Those feelings of resistance and anxiety work together in this elevated state of uncertainty—and so much of it is rooted in fear. It’s not just the pandemic that causes these feelings, either.
Fear of judgment, fear of not knowing what to do, fear of failure, fear of uncertainty. Our automatic and often unconscious response to the fear keeps us distracted, looking for any type of “out” or relief. Often, we will look for anything and everything to do except for that important thing. Our brains are exceptionally clever when it comes to avoiding whatever is scary or unpleasant.
What We Can Do About It
Fortunately for us, when it comes to finding solutions to this, most of the work has already been done. Grounding techniques are a form of behavioral therapy—and we can look to these techniques to help us come back to earth when things are spinning a bit out of control.
These practices help bring us back to feeling more centered, or grounded, and get things back on track.
The purpose of grounding techniques is to disrupt the frenetic thought patterns that tend to cycle through our brains in more anxious moments. Grounding helps us to feel safer and to be more at peace, so we can better focus. This feeling of safety is often important even though there may not be any real physical danger at the moment.
While I’m not a therapist or counselor, I’d like to share some grounding techniques I’ve personally found to be helpful during moments of higher distractibility. These techniques have helped me reduce the noise in my brain over the past year. I hope you find these simple practices to be helpful in getting focused when you need it most.
What To Do When Our Emotions Impact Our Attention
1 / Cold Therapy
Cold Therapy is an incredibly effective grounding technique that can stop a panic attack or a high anxiety state in the moment. Really, this one blew my mind.
During this practice, an intense cold sensation is used to startle the body and to bring an individual’s focus to the present moment. The coldness will immediately stop you from spiraling down further and bring everything in your mind to a still. This could look like jumping into a cold shower, squeezing a few ice cubes in your hand, or holding a super cold compress to your face.
From the perspective of someone who has experienced panic to the point of becoming physically sick, a cold shower results in immediate relief. For me, taking a cold shower is the most effective in instantly quelling a panic attack or washing off an anxious state.
2 / Meditation
Although meditation may be the last thing you want to do when you’re having trouble focusing, it’s incredibly helpful in calming the body and mind, so you can better direct your attention.
I’ve found meditation to be the second most effective technique for me. It can be hard to make the choice to meditate when you’re already anxious—unless you train yourself to do it. Starting out small and building out a pattern of knowing meditation can help with focus is the way to go. You need to be willing to sit through the initial discomfort and feel what you’re feeling so it can pass.
Sometimes, it’s best and necessary to do something more immediate, like cold therapy (mentioned above) first. However, with continued practice, meditation is a wonderful way to become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, feelings, and the Twitch. With the greater awareness, you’re then able to be more intentional with your attention, focus, and actions.
3 / Activating All Five Senses
The final grounding technique I’ve found to be helpful for me is activating all five of your senses to bring yourself into the present moment. Smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing.
You could find something that has a strong scent (ideally a pleasant one), like coffee or essential oils. Another option to activate multiple senses is cooking and then eating something you like. Finding an object to touch that is tactile or textured such as your pet, a beaded bracelet, or rock is another great option. Zoning into observing a colorful pattern or things that visually stand out is yet another way to ground yourself. I’ve found singing or humming to work particularly well; truly hearing and feeling the resonance of my own voice helps to quiet the mind.
There are ample resources available for more grounding techniques similar to the ones mentioned above. Experimenting and discovering what works for you is key.
Whenever you’re experiencing greater distraction, a lack of focus, or feeling more susceptible to the Twitch, remember to have self-compassion. Don’t beat yourself up! Becoming aware of how our emotions impact our attention will help you to learn how to “Break the Twitch” and begin living more intentionally.
Try a few of these or other grounding techniques and after a while, it won’t feel like work. You’ll shift into maintenance without thinking too much about it. Eventually, you’ll get better and better at staying grounded during times of turbulence so you can get back to the things that truly matter to you.