Anxiety has repeatedly been shown to affect how we process information in the world around us. One specific effect of high levels of anxiety is to increase the amount of attention we pay to threatening stimuli. Research shows that people with anxiety disorders are often drawn to pay more attention to things they find scary, and will be able to pick out potentially threatening stimuli in their environment more quickly.
This effect causes people with anxiety to notice more and more threatening things around them, which in turn increases their levels of anxiety. Their minds are primed to notice threats around them and so their levels of anxiety remain high.
Past research has shown this effect by measuring response times in patients with anxiety. Using a simple computer interface participants are shown either a threatening stimulus (such as an angry face) or a neutral stimulus (a blank face) followed by a target such as a dot or a certain letter. Participants were told to respond as soon as they saw the dot, and it was found that people with anxiety would be able to find the dot more quickly if it appeared next to where the threatening face had been a moment before. Their attention was already drawn to the threat and so they were able to respond more quickly.
Treatment for anxiety often involves training people away from noticing threats. This works by placing the target dot next to the neutral face more often than the angry face, thereby training participants to pay more attention to the neutral stimuli and spend less time looking at the threat. Results of such experiments have been mixed, with some finding that it helps reduce anxiety and others finding no change.
The current study changes the procedure by training participants to focus their attention on a happy face rather than a neutral one. People with anxiety disorders often tend to inhibit or downplay positive emotions, so training them to notice happy things in their environment could counteract this effect and help them stop dwelling on the frightening things around them.
Results showed that training participants to focus their attention on happy faces did indeed reduce levels of anxiety. By the end of the study participants were able to respond to positive stimuli more quickly, suggesting they had learned to pay more attention to them.
Anxiety works by holding a monopoly on your thoughts and forcing you to only pay attention to things you find threatening or scary. Anxiety also makes it harder for you to notice and pay attention to the good things in your life. The findings of this study suggest a fascinating new treatment for anxiety which re-trains the brain to pay more attention to positive stimuli rather than negative ones.
Learning how to cope with anxiety through changing what you pay attention to is one of the principles of evidence-based anxiety treatment. If you’re tired of seeing the world as scary and full of danger and want to be free to see the good around you as well as the bad, get in touch today.