How to Stop Worrying: The Spotlight Technique

When you’re worried about something, do you feel like you have trouble turning off your mind? Or that you can’t move on to other things until the worries are gone?

Worrying is difficult, and it can be hard to stop worrying. While you can’t just make a thought go away, you can control what you do in response to worrying thoughts.

Worry is all about the fear of uncertainty.

Worrying is an attempt to resolve the frightening uncertainty, but the process is never-ending because most worrying questions cannot be answered with absolute certainty.

Instead, what you need to do is face your fear of uncertainty by intentionally leaving worry questions unanswered and going on with what you’re doing with your time even though they remain unanswered.



Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Easier said than done, of course, but I like to give my clients an easy way to think about how to do this, which can make conceptualization easier. I call it the spotlight technique.

You can think of it like this: Imagine you are a spotlight operator in a theatre. So you can decide where on the stage the light goes. Imagine that the stage is your mind and the spotlight is the spotlight of your attention: that is where you are focusing your mental effort and energy right now. On one side of the stage you have the anxious thoughts that raise all your worrying questions: “Are you going to die?!” “Are you going to lose your job?!” “Do people think you’re weird?!” On the other side of the stage, what you are actually doing right now is what you have right now in the present moment. It can be anything. If you read a book, read the book. When it comes to driving, it’s the podcast you’re listening to or what you’re watching along the way. When you talk to someone, it’s the conversation.

Typically, it’s your normal habit of thinking to yourself, “Well, these anxiety questions are really big and important, I couldn’t possibly get on with my day until I answered that.” So you put the spotlight on the worrying questions and keep analyzing while desperately trying to answer the questions.

But trying to resolve the uncertainty is the because of the whole problem, not the solution.

So it only breeds more fear and since most worry questions are literally impossible to answer with certainty, it just goes on and on endlessly.

The Spotlight Technique is simple: if you catch yourself spotlighting the worry questions and trying to analyze the answers, all you have to do is make a conscious decision to move the spotlight of your attention to the other side of the stage . what you are doing with your time right now.

    Lucas Pezeta/Pexels


Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels

This doesn’t make the anxious thoughts go away, and it doesn’t make it so that you don’t hear them. It’s not a distraction technique. If you try not to think about the thoughts, that’s all you’ll think about. It’s more like you just ignore the worry questions. They’re still there, but they’re in the background in the dark and you don’t do anything to them. The focus of your attention is what you are doing in the present moment; The anxious thoughts are ignored.

This requires giving yourself permission not to solve the problems that your brain is telling you desperately need to solve right now.

That means “let go”. It’s not about letting go of the worry or the thoughts themselves. It means letting go of the effort, releasing the worry.

It is difficult. You won’t be perfect at it either; there will be times when you use it, and then quite quickly, out of habit, your attention will slip back to the worrying thoughts, without your even intending to. That’s okay – it’s part of the process of leveling up this skill. Think of it like a weak muscle that you train: it gradually gets stronger over time.

All you have to do is, every time you catch yourself putting it on the worry questions, make the decision to bring the spotlight back to the present moment. Don’t worry about how often you have to do this, and try not to beat yourself up for inadvertently letting the spotlight slip onto worrying thoughts; Just consistently bring the attention back to what you’re doing in front of you, and it gets easier and easier.

Your brain will also gradually get used to ignoring the worries and it will eventually learn to stop treating them as dangerous and to sound the alarm of fear of them. It takes time, persistence, and effort, but this ability to redirect attention is the most important coping skill for reducing worry and anxiety in the long run.

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