Don’t Panic, Autofocus

Athens to Istanbul: 

Does anxiety keep you from living a happy life?

There are three typical reactions to anxiety. Fight, flight or freeze.  Do you get scared, angry or turn into that little squirrel in the middle of the road?  “Which way do I go… which way do I go?” What if there was a way you could use those reactions to beat your anxiety and get you out of the house?

I think I’ve found one really great way to do it… photography.  You won’t find this in any psychology textbook, but it’s a type of systematic exposure. No matter how you classify it, here’s why I think it works. 

1. Staying in the Moment
Anxiety and worry are always about the future. “What if I have an accident… the plane crashes… I lose my job… I’m dying of a heart attack?”  It’s all stuff that hasn’t happened yet. But they might, right? Taking photos helps you to look at your environment for the stuff that’s happening right now. You’ll hear it from psychologists and yogis alike. The advice remains the same. Staying in the here and now is the best cure for worry.

2. Searching for Beauty
Depression tends to go hand in hand with anxiety. People who suffer from depression tend to see the dark side of life. The ugliness. Do you seek out beauty in your environment? It’s hard to feel anxious when looking for beauty. Photography encourages us to change lenses from gloomy to spectacular. Of course, you can always take pictures of garbage and homelessness, but even there, you can find beauty in many situations.

3. Being Curious
Do you avoid people and situations where you could be judged? Social anxiety and the fear of rejection can lead to a judgmental attitude. We look for inadequacies or flaws in others because we expect them to do the same when they look at us.  Photography helps us to overcome judgement. Being curious is about seeing the environment and forgetting about how we’re being seen. We look for what might be around the next corner. Curiosity is being open. Judgmental is being closed. 

4. Slowing Down
Anxiety creates racing thoughts. Slowing down creates calm. Taking that awesome shot requires framing the scene, holding the camera, feeling it in your hands. You take a deep breath and watch the magic unfold. If you don’t slow down, nasty things happen… blurry faces, a random passerby in your frame. But when you slow down to get the shot you want, miraculous things happen… that perfect fan of spray jetting out of the ocean… the magnificent swordfish breaching the waves… the baby laughing. What a great way to practice taking one thing at a time. 

5. Engaging with Others
If your palms sweat at the thought of starting a conversation with strangers, you probably won’t like the idea of asking someone to let you take their picture. Here’s a solution. Get some practice by asking a couple or an individual taking a selfie if they would like you to take their picture for them. They’re usually too shy to ask you themselves and very grateful. 

6. Being Grateful
Before looking through your camera lens, take a moment to screen for the things you’re able to see. Be grateful for vision. Now, keep looking… see that person sleeping on the bench? Think about all the blessings in your life, all the things you take for granted like having a roof over your head and a bed to sleep on.. What about that beautiful sunrise or sunset. Would you see the brilliant colors if you were not on this earth, alive and curious about your surroundings? Enjoy it… then snap the picture.

7. Focusing
Anxiety rises with stress. You can feed it by looking at the negative things in your life. You can let go of the stress by focusing on your subject. A stunning piece of architecture, an adorable kitten stalking a bird for the first time—anything you want to capture right here, right now. But before you take that shot, take a slow, deep breath. Let the world stop spinning for a moment as you hone in… hold steady and click. You’ve just practiced a relaxation strategy and you’ve got something  to show for it. A real win, win for you and the world—now a better place because of your vision.


You won’t learn Picture Taking 101 as part of therapy, but it does help if you have a mentor. In my case my husband, Joe, is the expert. He’ll say, “I’ve noticed that a lot of your pictures are blurry. It might help if you slow down.” Watching him take pictures was frustrating when my thoughts were racing. It seemed like everything was happening in slow motion…  he just wouldn’t react fast enough to satisfy my brain. I’d watch him framing a shot and think, “Do it! You’re going to lose it!!” But several blurry pictures later, I ask myself, “Is it really better to rush to the snap only to end up with blurry wings on the soaring seagull? I’m learning to slow everything down; first in my head, then in my hands. It takes practice, but so does meditation.

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