How to avoid potholes of the mind
I first learned to ride a bicycle at the age of five and I have been a fan of two wheels ever since. One of my earliest cycling memories is of plummeting down a hill, unable to stop my bike and heading straight towards a tree at the bottom of the hill. A path gently curved to the left of the tree, however, I found myself being somehow magnetically pulled towards the tree rather than leaning into the safe option of the path. Luckily I managed to throw myself into the turn at the last minute – but it was a close call – and my stomach clenches to this day even thinking about it.
Since then, when cycling, riding motorcycles and even driving cars there have been several similar incidents where I have experienced myself feeling propelled towards a road hazard rather than away from it. In recent years I have learned that what I was experiencing wasn’t subconscious thrill-seeking, flirtation with danger or terrible vehicle control but episodes of a phenomenon known as “target fixation”.
Target fixation is a panic response in which a person confronted with a dangerous object or situation becomes so focussed on the hazard, that they lose awareness of their surroundings and they actually increase the chances of colliding with the hazard. This description was first used during World War II when it was found that fighter pilots could become so fixated on the enemy planes they were in combat with, that they ended up flying into them.
So, once we locate a threat, we can become consumed with watching it and as the saying goes; “you go where you look”. We’ve probably all had the “shall we dance?” experience of trying to avoid bumping into an oncoming person in a narrow space – but repeatedly walking into each other. The solution to this is to respond more skilfully, directing our attention away from the “danger” and to look at where we want to go, not at what we want to avoid; we then naturally follow the direction of our attention. (In my case, don’t look at the tree, pothole, or pedestrian – look and lean into the road that runs safely past it).
Any cyclist, driver or sportsperson would benefit from being able to navigate through target fixation; however, there are also psychological benefits of learning this skill that can be used to deal with obstacles in our everyday lives.
For example, in my work as a psychotherapist, target fixation can be a useful way to understand social anxiety. People struggling with this common condition often describe difficulty concentrating in social situations, usually because they become hijacked by thoughts such as “I’m boring, I’m blushing, I’m no fun, I don’t make sense” etc. This stressful focus on the unwanted outcome can be viewed as target fixation, to the point where these very worries can become real and therefore people encounter the outcome they are most trying to avoid. Further, their fixation may cause them to miss signals of interest, engagement, or approval from someone they are talking to - and to interpret neutral or ambiguous gestures as negative. This can lead to withdrawal, future avoidance and isolation.
To prevent target fixation in the areas of performance stress or social anxiety, it is useful to identify our thoughts and behaviours that contribute to the problem. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT, a form of psychotherapy within the CBT tradition) encourages us to acknowledge that discomfort is present, for example; negative thoughts, physical symptoms of anxiety etc but not to get fixated -or “hooked”- on this, instead mindfully shifting the focus of our attention back to the conversation or activity that is taking place.
Similarly, with depression or self-doubt, ACT acknowledges the fixation on negative self-talk – but urges that people place their focus on where they want to be in whichever situation is troubling them. From here, achievable goals can be set. This normalises the presence of discomfort – but helps people develop the confidence to lean into this and to adopt behaviours more in line with their values and wishes.
This becomes easier with practice and it can be helpful to prepare for certain situations that we know will push us outside of our comfort zone. For example, making a presentation, or going to a social event where we won’t know many people. We can predict that the emotion of anxiety will show up, along with physical discomfort and internal chatter telling us “This will be terrible, I should back out, they’ll think I’m awkward” etc. To prevent getting hooked by this, we can consider our minds to be like an “over-helpful” friend, trying to protect us from what it perceives to be a “dangerous situation”. If we then lean into this discomfort and focus on what is important to us – even if we still feel terrified – we usually find that our mind’s warnings were inaccurate and less than helpful (don’t worry – we don’t begin to view unquestionably dangerous situations as a challenge to be accepted). Continued practice at making room for our mind’s negative comments can become genuinely exciting and lead us to live a richer and more satisfying life.
You can begin this today; think of an area of life where you tend to get hooked by worry or negative thoughts which prevent you from moving forward as easily as you would like. It could be replying to an email, tackling a difficult task or contacting a friend after some time. Recognise that the thought of doing these things might trigger some physical discomfort (tension, breathing faster, nausea), some negative thoughts (“it’ll go wrong, won’t be good enough, they’ll think less of me”) and an urge to avoid the situation. Acknowledge that these are normal human responses, lean into this experience – make room for the physical sensations, unhook from the negative thoughts (perhaps by “thanking” your mind for the warnings – but choose to ignore them) and mindfully guide your attention by focussing on what the task needs to be completed.
As humans, the “survival” part of our minds is quick to locate “targets” – potential dangers. Occasionally these are useful messages – more often they are not. The key is to not become fixated on these perceived dangers and to search for routes that lead us away from these unhelpful distractions, to where we ultimately want to be in life. This will often mean leaning into some sharp corners – but looking at where we want to go not only propels us towards our goals and values - it does this swiftly, without breaking momentum and it makes the ride far easier and more enjoyable.