Originally published in The Startup.
I can say unequivocally that 99.9% of the anxiety I’ve experienced in my life has been a direct result of me overblowing the importance of something or other. Probably 100%.
Seeing as I get a lot of emails about this, here are 3 ways I’ve learned to manage anxiety by changing my perspective on situations. They’re simple. Not revolutionary. But as always, each comes from a note I’ve written to myself.
My cat’s greatest joy in life is chasing flies, moths and other small fluttering insects.
When she’s in the pursuit of one, she gets this incredible look of focus on her little furry face. Brow furrowed. Yellow eyes wide. Tail twitching. Every muscle focused on her goal. She blocks everything else out until she catches it.
The other day I was sat on my laptop at work when I noticed a guy on the phone in a nearby meeting room. Through the glass door, I watched him pace around the room, barking out sentences every few steps. Every so often, he’d hover over his laptop as if it were a bomb needing to be diffused.
It occurred to me that his expression was exactly the same as my cat’s when she chases a fly. The same furrowed brow. The same focused eyes. The same tense body language. The same air of total absorption.
Now I obviously don’t know what he was talking about. Maybe he was remotely diffusing a bomb or talking someone through CPR. But I’ve seen that look on people many times. It always gives me a sudden, incredible sense of perspective.
Animals have that effect. Look at a dog chewing an old rope toy, glowing with joy. Is his happiness less valid than yours would be if you made a million dollars, won a Pulitzer, bought a Bentley?
Look at a cat whining because she’s not allowed to climb on a hot stove. Is her frustration less valid than yours when you tell yourself you can’t text your ex, or drink tonight, or have a cookie?
It’s one reason why I think owning pets is so beneficial. Living in such close proximity with a friendly, yet utterly other living being throws your behaviour in sharp relief- because it forces you to acknowledge that most things matter less than we think.
Several years ago, I was studying film at college and I saw Powers of Ten for the first time.
If you haven’t seen it (and it’s less than 10 minutes long so WATCH IT), it’s about the scale of the universe. And it’s one of those rare, life-changing films.
It begins with a short of a couple eating and reading by a lake. The camera then zooms out by one order of magnitude (from 1 sqm to 10 sqm), showing more of the area, then to 100 sqm and so on. Every 10 seconds, we zoom out another order of magnitude — until we reach the edge of the observable universe.
Then it reverses, and we zoom in one order of magnitude every 2 seconds, right down to a view of the atoms in the man’s hand.
Setting aside my mathematically and scientifically inept explanation, Powers of Ten taught me a lot about perspective.
When I find myself overwhelmed or in a stressful situation, I try to imagine myself from above, then pan backwards until I see the whole street, the city, the county, the country, Europe, this blue planet — then let it fade into darkness (this is also a meditation technique.)
It works every time. Because once you visualise yourself as an insignificant speck, you realise how inconsequential just about everything is. And although that can be paralysing, it can also be liberating.
I remember the morning of my first day of high school.
It was September 2009. I was 11 years old, 4"9 or thereabouts, with long permed hair and an oversized navy blue school uniform.
I was petrified. As I put on my blazer, the sleeves falling past my hands, I contemplated the seemingly endless years ahead of me.
But then I paused and thought: there will be a time when this day was a week ago. And a month ago. And a year ago. And five years ago. And ten years ago. One day I will look back on this with the distance of a decade — no matter what happens, time will pass.
That thought strengthened me throughout my first days and it’s something I’ve turned to countless times since then: Time never stops passing and even the worst memories, the most excruciating moments, will recede into the read view mirror and lose their power.
When you’re about to face something difficult or scary, it can be amazingly helpful to envision yourself looking back on that moment in a year’s time with the knowledge that you’re far more likely to feel the pain of regret than the pain of it going wrong. You’re more likely to look back and be glad you did it, even if it’s uncomfortable or outright unpleasant.
Much like envisioning problems from a physical distance, creating a sense of time distance helps give perspective. It’s a way of seeing how our lives fit into the wider scheme of things.