Feeling Stressed? Zoom Out.

Feeling Stressed? Zoom Out.

March 07, 2023

When you are stressed, it is easy for your mind to spiral toward negativity and get stuck in a pattern of rumination and catastrophizing.

Stress can narrow our vision, like a spotlight. Rather than seeing the big picture, we focus our attention, thoughts, and actions on the perceived threat, neglecting whatever is blacked out in the periphery. In some circumstances, like an athlete zeroing in on the task at hand to score the game-winning point in a clutch moment, this spotlight can be beneficial.

For the type of stress that most of us face, however, keeping our focus too narrow for too long will be more likely to hinder our performance. Instead, we may benefit from turning on the floodlight.

When we zoom out, we take in more information so we can find a solution. According to research, adopting a broad state of mind shifts our actions to become more exploratory, and our perception, attention, thinking, openness to experience, and even mood will shift with us.

When stress or anxiety overwhelms you, consider trying one of these 5 tools for zooming out, and you may find that are able to deal with the situation more productively and (perhaps) creatively.

Visual Zooming

If you’re nervous, try taking your glasses off to force your visual system to go broad. If you don't wear glasses, soften your gaze and focus on the periphery to enhance creativity.

Linguistic Zooming

When we switch our self-talk from first person to second or third person, we are creating psychological distance, which dampens down our emotions.
During World War Two, co-pilots discovered that talking in a calm voice with clear commands snapped scared pilots in dire situations out of inaction. Decades later, researchers discovered that reminding pilots to broaden their attention throughout a stressful landing improved performance markedly.

Cognitive Zooming

Adam Smith wrote that we should be able to adopt the view of an "impartial spectator" to decrease the stress created by our own perceptions. Ask yourself, “What advice would a friend give me in this moment?” to zoom yourself out of a spiral.

Temporal Zooming

When we narrow our focus, we discount the future. To break this cycle, we need to zoom out and think about how our future selves will judge our actions now. Anyone can tell themselves at mile 19 of a marathon that it makes sense to quit – it’s painful in the moment. But, how will you view this struggle when you are at the finish line? The same can be applied when you’re panicked in the middle of a big project at work. How will this project look one year from now?

Physical Zooming

Changing our posture can shift our state of mind. In one study, participants were randomly assigned to sit either on the edge of their seats or to sit fully reclined before taking on a task of categorizing a group of pictures presented to them. Those who were reclined in their chairs were more likely to assign broad, creative categories (such as placing a vehicle and a camel in the same grouping), whereas those on the edge of their seat tended to stick to much narrower categories. When all else fails, a simple change in our physical position can change our thinking and perception.

Article based on The Growth Equation blog.