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Ch-8: Rise Above Anxiety, Anger, and Depression

Mental Control Strategy 6: Focus (and HF Model Diagram)

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter 8,  Part 7,  from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book Contents      Return to chapter contents Go to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Mental Control Strategy 6:

Keep your "eye on the ball" to funnel your energy

 Focus on what you really want to say to overcome speech or social anxiety

Dr. Maslow associated the peak experiences so often felt by his self-actualizing people with periods of intense concentration and growth.

Apparently the acute mystic or peak experience is
a tremendous intensification of any of the experiences
in which there is a loss of self or transcendence of it;
e.g., problem-centering, intense concentration, . . .
intense sensuous experience, self-forgetful and
intense enjoyment of music or art.
(Abraham Maslow, 1954, p. 165)

When I was still hoping to become a major-league baseball player (during high school), I saw a book in which a researcher examined photographs of some of the best hitters of all time. He compared photos of the best hitters swinging at the ball to photos of average hitters. The great hitters such as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Henry Aaron had their eyes glued to the ball as they were swinging. The eyes of the other major league players were typically looking toward the pitcher, first base, or anyplace except the ball. What is true in baseball is true in life. If you want to do well at something, you've got to "Keep your eye on the ball."

A member of singer/songwriter Garth Brook's inner circle described him as so focused when he is writing that "an explosion could go off right next to him and he would never hear it." By keeping his attention focused on his writing, Garth Brooks could concentrate his mental powers on creating his best music.

This type of concentration usually means a feeling of total immersion in the focal subject and a loss of time perspective. Dr. Maslow called this characteristic "problem-centering," and believed it to be one of the most important characteristics of self-actualizing people. It is also a direct cause of achieving states of "loss of self," happiness, and "peak experience."

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A major university decided to form study groups to solve a variety of important problems at the university. Half the groups were told to find all of the problems they could and make reports about them. The other half of the groups were not told anything about finding problems. They were instructed to focus on finding solutions to whatever problems they thought might exist.

The problem-focus groups explored the problems thoroughly and became increasing discouraged about what a mess the university was in. Attendance dropped and one-by-one the groups disintegrated. Few reports were even filed.

The solution-focus groups had very different results. Groups quickly found a few problems members thought were important. But they spent little time dwelling on the problems. Instead they started focusing on solutions. Members made many positive suggestions and became enthusiastic about them. People enjoyed going to meetings, and some groups lasted for several years. The solution-focus groups contributed to many constructive changes in their university.

Individuals are much the same way. We all know "complainers"--people who are constantly focusing on their problems and play the role of victim. They seem to seek sympathy. They may want validation that the situation is so impossible, they have no responsibility to improve it. They may fear that--despite their disadvantages--they could have solved their problems and achieved a happier life. It's easy to slip into that mode of thinking.

Do you ever find yourself complaining repeatedly about the same issue, end up feeling sorry for yourself, and slip into the victim role? Change your focus from the problems, disadvantages, and roadblocks to focus on your resources, constructive ideas, and potential solutions to improve the situation. You will experience an immediate improvement in attitude and begin to make genuine progress.

PRACTICE: Make progress on an "impossible" problem. Think of a problem which you have given up on or a problem you constantly complain about.
(1) List the external barriers (factors outside yourself) which are contributing to the problem or are barriers to your solving the problem.

(2) List the internal barriers (your beliefs, motivation, lack of training or experience, disabilities, etc) which are barriers to solving the problem.

(3) List the external resources--external factors or resources (people, money, job, educational opportunities, etc) which are available to help you.

(4) List your internal resources that can help you (your intelligence, motivation, experience, persistence, ability to learn, time, etc.).

(5) For each external and internal barrier list resources and ideas that can help you overcome that limitation.

(6) List potential new solutions, and ideas of how to follow up on them (example, get more information).

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Giving an important speech, confronting a powerful person, or performing a difficult task under great pressure can lead to high anxiety. Performance anxiety means anxiety in a situation where optimal performance seems important. It usually involves evaluation by others and ourselves. (Expectations and goals are important and should be dealt with as described in strategy 4 to keep us optimally challenged.)

Performance anxiety produces interfering thoughts. There are many types of performance anxiety, but they have similar causes. Test anxiety is a good example and is very common among students. Research (and my clinical observation) has shown that people who have test anxiety are really spending much of their test time thinking negative thoughts. These negative thoughts may involve possible consequences of not doing well on the test, of self "put-downs," of thinking how they are doomed to fail, or of many other negative themes.

It is not just the negativism of these thoughts that reduces students chances of doing well on the test. In addition, they may spend 10 to 30 minutes out of a 50-minute test hour focusing on these negative thoughts. That leaves them only 20 to 40 minutes to focus on the content of the test and search their memory for answers. Their classmates have the whole 50 minutes!

Control focus to "prime" and control your brain's search for memory associations. If you focus on the word "apple," your memory naturally begins to search for related associations, such as the visual image of an apple and taste of an apple. If you focus on negative themes, your memory will produce associated thoughts such as previous failures or terrible things that could happen if you don't do well. Even prolonged debating with yourself to generate positive thoughts can interfere with "keeping your eye on the ball" in many performance situations.

You control your brain's search and "priming" of content-related memories by controlling your focus of attention. If you direct your focus to the actual content of the test, speech, or other performance, then your memory will naturally search for associations related to the performance. You will recall the content necessary to answer the questions.

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Refocus "on the ball" during a task to overcome anxiety. Use the following steps to overcome performance anxiety and maximize concentration during the performance.

(1) Observe your focus.  During the performance, let your Higher Self (or "inner observer") partly be alert to the occurrence of negative or other interfering thoughts. Examples: "What will everyone think of me?" "What if I fail?" "This can't be happening to me." "Why can't I remember this." "I worked so hard." "This is terrible." "I can't cope with this." "I don't know what to do." "I'm a failure." "That is so stupid." "What's the matter with me."

(2) Refocus on the content.  When you observe interfering thoughts occurring, remember the following:

  • These thoughts are interfering with your focus on the content and preventing success.
  • You do not have time to deal with the underlying issues now; you can deal with them later.
  • You can (optionally) repeat short pre-planned positive statements to yourself (see 3).
  • Instead, focus your attention on any part of the actual content of the current task that will get you re-engaged in the immediate task. This new focus will even help you remember "forgotten" material that you couldn't recall when you were focusing on negative thoughts (because the new focus primes related memories).
(3) Later, examine underlying issues.  At times outside the performance situation (or during breaks), examine the interfering thoughts. What were the content and themes of the interfering thoughts? Follow your feelings [self-exploration chapter] to get to the underlying subparts and issues that are producing the interfering thoughts. Also, see the HARMONY strategy 2 above. Write a few short statements that cope with underlying themes. You can use these later in the target performance situation. 
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Competing parts of ourselves generate conflicting thoughts. Any thoughts that change our focus from the primary task at hand can interfere with our current performance--not only negative thoughts, even pleasant ones. The sources of these thoughts are cognitive systems. Distracting thoughts can affect performance.

Negotiating with our subparts to reduce interfering thoughts. If we are in the midst of giving a speech, a serious discussion, taking an exam, playing ball, or writing a proposal, then we certainly cannot resolve all of our underlying conflicts then! It might take awhile to resolve these issues. What can we do right now to improve our focus? One way is to temporarily focus back on our goals, values, or reasons why we are doing what we are doing right now. We can ask ourselves, "What do I really want to be doing right now?" (considering all of my feelings and subparts).

No matter how pressing the immediate situation may be, we can remind ourselves, "I really am free to do whatever my other subpart (that is trying to interfere) wants to do instead." After considering the main factors, we can make a fresh decision now about whether we choose to continue the match, meeting, exam, or writing. If we decide to continue and the interfering thoughts continue, we can remind ourselves why we made this decision to continue.

To negotiate with the subpart that is generating the interfering thoughts, we can schedule a time to attend to that subpart and the issues it is raising. We can even write down thoughts we are getting from it so that we can get back in touch with those thoughts later. Negotiating with the troublesome subpart can help reassure it, and that can help quiet it for a while. However, if the executive self later breaks its promises to other subparts, then they will not trust it and will not be put off so easily in the future.

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What is "the ball?" Where do we focus for maximum performance? This is a very complex issue and will depend upon the specific task we are engaged in. The rules I follow for directing my attention when I am playing tennis may bare little resemblance to the rules I follow for directing my attention when I am writing this book. Directing our focus is part of the skill we learn as we move from novice to expert in any task. Learning where to focus attention is a skill that helps make a superstar athlete better than rivals.

 Focus on deep content (and connect to it) to maximize interest and learning. I once had a student who sat in the middle of my psychology class and closed his eyes during my lectures and never took a note. It used to annoy me, because I thought he was sleeping in my class. Yet, when I graded the first exam, I was amazed: he had the highest grade in the class!

I couldn't believe it, so I asked him how he did it. He said that during my lectures he would focus his attention on what I was saying and try to visualize it and think of ways he could apply it to his life. He said he didn't need to take notes, because he focused so well it seemed easy to remember what he needed on the exams.

Contrast his approach with students who spend most of their time focused on taking notes or on thoughts that are totally unrelated to the lecture. They may rarely focus on the deeper content of the lecture and rarely attempt to assimilate it. They never learn the material in the first place.

Later that student may try to memorize it in some unproductive and boring rote fashion. Understimulation leads to poor learning and memory. On the other hand, the successful student concentrates on understanding the lecture's (or book's) deeper meaning and understanding how to apply it to new situations. This intense focus and struggle to understand the material creates harmonious functioning and its "big three" interwoven outcomes--peak learning, peak performance, and peak happiness (interest). 

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 Focus on what you really want to say to overcome self-expression or speech anxiety. A client came to me who had an ironic problem. She was a successful teacher who spoke in front of her students every day with great confidence--even when being evaluated by her principal.

Yet she was currently taking a graduate class that required her to speak in front of the class. She was terrified. She had a history of being terrified of speaking in front of her peers. Why was this so? She could teach children confidently with her peers present or even with a principal present who had to make a decision about her job security! Why couldn't she speak to a group of fellow college students with only a grade at stake?

After much inquiry, we found out that the main difference between her teaching situation and her speaking to a college class was that in the first instance she felt like what she had to say was really important. She really wanted to teach the children the things she believed they needed to learn. Therefore she would "lose herself" and focus all of her attention on her goal of helping the students learn the material.

In the college class, she was required to give a speech on a topic she had little interest in, knew little about, and thought would bore the other students. Therefore her mind focused on her own fears about evaluations by her peers and her instructors. She could not get lost in delivering a message she thought was important. She rewrote her speech into one she really wanted to tell her classmates. Focusing on what she really wanted to tell them reduced her anxiety so much that she delivered the speech confidently.

This method works with most people when they feel anxiety about talking with others. A salesperson who first "sold himself" on his product and was honest with customers became more confident and persuasive. People afraid of talking to strangers have become more outgoing and confident. They focus on their genuine interests instead of making a good impression. They ask themselves, "What do I really want to know about this person--or learn from this person?" and "What would I really like to tell them about me or talk about?"

The next time you feel anxious about talking with someone (or giving a speech),
focus on what you really want to learn from them
and what you really want to say--
not on any outcome (focus on process goals).
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In the big game which is life, keeping your eye on the ball means focusing on your ultimate concerns. My ultimate concern is the greatest happiness for myself and others over time. Happiness is partially a measure of the harmony in our mind-body subparts. If all of my subparts such as "psychologist," "athlete," "husband," "artist," and "child" are in harmony, then I will experience happiness.

People elevate many different means to happiness above the end goal happiness. These means may include a love relationship, immediate pleasure, money, job status, family, or security. By not keeping their eye on the ball, they start making these means to happiness into ends. Consequently, they make decisions that undermine their happiness. A major cause of my clients' unhappiness is their making family or relationship an ultimate concern. They become obsessed with trying to gain acceptance--no matter how dysfunctional the relationship. They lose sight of their own happiness.

I keep reminding myself that overall happiness for self and others is my ultimate concern. I am also most responsible for my own happiness. If there is a prolonged conflict between my family, my wife, my job, my recreation, my security, or anything else and my ultimate concern, then I will put my ultimate concern first. Sherry does the same, and it helps create a very happy marriage for both of us.  

Focus on your ultimate concern to provide a beacon
to lead you through fog, currents that take you adrift, and violent storms.
It will provide meaning for your life and help keep you "in the zone"
of harmonious functioning.

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Harmonious Functioning model image



I use these six mental control strategies almost every day with my clients and with myself to get control of emotions. If you are not currently using them, learning them and using them habitually will make a significant difference in your life. You will be able to adjust your emotions like a thermostat. You can turn down the challenge when your emotions are too hot, and turn up the challenge when your emotions are too cold. Spend much more of your life in the zone of harmonious functioning.

Review the figure of the harmonious functioning model. Then etch the SIX Harmonious Thinking mental control strategies in your mind. Perhaps you would like to learn a little memory trick to help you remember the six strategies. When I was a child, my mother read me a story about the Little Engine That Could. This little "Choo Choo" had to carry a load of toys for all the children at Christmas up and down very steep hills. When it came to a hill that seemed too overwhelming, it repeated the message, "I think I can, I think I can" over and over again--until it reached the top of the hill.

 Think of this "little engine that could" and watch it "chug off" saying "I think I can, I think I can." Use the acronym, CHUG-OFF. C=Choice; H=Harmony; U=Understanding; G=Goals & expectations; O=Optimism; and F=Focus (drop final "F"). That's how I remember the six mental control strategies.

PRACTICE 1: Use this chapter to overcome a difficult emotional situation. (1) Think of a situation, person, or issue where you would like to get better emotional control (or performance). Or think of an emotion you have trouble dealing with. (2) Is the emotion involved primarily an overarousal emotion, an underarousal emotion, or sometimes one then the other? (3) Apply the six Harmonious Thinking Strategies. Note that the problem may be solved by just one of the six--or it could take all six.

PRACTICE 2: Memorize these CHUG-OF parts and practice using them intensely until they become habitual! Put up a list on the wall, carry a list in your billfold or purse. Go back and refer to parts of this chapter like a reference book when you need it. This--more than almost any other chapter--is useful on a daily basis for coping with unpleasant emotions.


SHAQ Research Results: Emotional Coping Habits


�� The Emotional Coping scale asks, how often do you respond to being upset with the following response? The users check the percentage of time they respond with a particular type of response (see subscales below). The Emotional Coping scale correlated with Happiness, .66; with Low Depression, .60; with Low Anxiety, .51; with Low Anger-Aggression, .49; with good Relationships, .42; with Health, .49; with Income, .13; with Education, .14; and with college GPA, .14.


Emotional Coping consists of the following six subscales.

1. Problem-solve, self-explore, talk subscale correlated with Happiness, .48; with Low Depression, .28; with Low Anxiety, .22; with Low Anger-Aggr, .29; with good Relationships, .42; with Health, .26; with Education, .10; and with college GPA, .11.

2. Positive thoughts, philosophical view, pep-talk subscale correlated with Happiness, .57; with Low Depression, .50; with Low Anxiety, .36; with Low Anger-Aggr, .31; with good Relationships, .36; with Health, .28; with Income, .05; with Education, .08; and with college GPA, .05.

3. Positive acts, fun, exercise. subscale correlated with Happiness, .36; with Low Depression, .24; with Low Anxiety, .14; with Low Anger-Aggr, .21; with good Relationships, .25; and with Health, .29.

4. Not anger, blame, withdraw subscale correlated with Happiness, .49; with Low Depression, .53; with Low Anxiety, .48; with Low Anger-Aggr, .45 with good Relationships, .27; with Health, .26; with Income, .13; with Education, .08; and with college GPA, .09.

5. Not smoke, drugs subscale correlated with Happiness, .19; with Low Depression, .29; with Low Anxiety, .33; with Low Anger-Aggr, .26; with good Relationships, .07; with Health, .64; with Income, .07; with Education, .18; and with college GPA, .11.

6. Not eat item correlated with Happiness, .20; with Low Depression, .27; with Low Anxiety, .22; with Low Anger-Aggr, .21; with good Relationships, .07; with Health, .24; with Income, .10.


�� Positive responses such as problem-solving, exploring, positive thoughts, reframing with Higher Self or other positive beliefs, doing positive engaging activities, and avoiding unproductive, hostile, damaging, or addictive thoughts and actions are some of the best ways to get control of emotions.

�� As you can see, how we respond to daily negative emotions may have strong effects on our overall happiness, negative emotions, relationships, health, and is even related to income and educational achievement.


Note: For all correlations, p < .0001 and Ns ranged from 2704 to 3226.�



Happiness is not caused by external conditions.
Happiness measures the harmonious functioning of our brain--
how optimally it is challenged and how much it is learning.
Overchallenge causes overarousal emotions like anxiety and anger.
Underchallenge causes underarousal emotions like
boredom and depression.
We can adjust our emotions like a thermostat
by adjusting the challenge level.
Belief in mental control seems like magic,
because that belief alone helps get control.
The six mental control strategies give you
basic tools to achieve mental control.
Learn how to CHUG-OFF
when you need to adjust your emotional thermostat.
CHOICE (Replace or convert the situation),
HARMONY (of motives through self-exploration),
UNDERSTANDING (the situation and creating a road map),
GOALS (To lower anxiety, set goals LAPDS--
lower, process, dynamic, alternative, simple
OPTIMISM (that I can eventually be happy no matter what the outcome),
FOCUS (on the ball and ultimate concern).
Through strengthening your Higher Self and increased mental control,
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