Have you ever noticed how when you’re worried about something you can’t get it out of your head? Your train of thought just seems to keep on returning to this one frightening situation and you keep imagining yourself going through it, with terrible consequences.
Anxiety has a big effect on our attentional control, which is our ability to choose what we pay attention to. Attention is directed by both a conscious, controlled choice (a “top-down” view) and as an unconscious reaction to things around us (a “bottom up” view). Anxiety interferes with the top down processing in your brain and makes you more prone to dwell on frightening things around you.
That’s why very anxious people find themselves constantly returning to the same worrying thoughts. But new research looking at ways to re-train your brain might have found an answer.
Anxiety interferes with our working memory- our ability to process information in the world around us and hold it in our head for more than a few seconds. A reduced working memory makes it hard to filter out unimportant things in the world around us and interferes with our ability to choose what we pay attention to. But training using psychological working memory exercises can restore your ability to process information effectively.
This training involves being presented with information in two different formats- one visual and one audio- and looking for links and patterns within them. In this study, people with high levels of anxiety were given this training for three weeks. Improvements in their ability to process information led to a higher ability to control what they focussed their attention on. This meant that the conscious “top down” processing had been restored, letting people chose what they thought about based on what mattered to them, rather than simply reacting to things around them.
This enhanced attentional control led to a reduction in anxiety. Participants who had more control over what they thought about were better able to filter out irrelevant info and could stop themselves dwelling on their worries. They also experienced less intrusive thoughts relating to their anxiety.
This study has interesting implications on how to cope with anxiety and suggests new ideas for effective anxiety treatment. People struggling with anxiety often find their minds drawn to the things they worry about, which serves to maintain their worries and keep them in place. People suffering from anxiety disorders also often find their mental processing and ability to think clearly become impaired. This new technique for restoring your ability to process info around you can help you to choose what you pay attention to and break the cycle of worry that keeps you trapped in anxious thoughts and behaviours.
Anxiety can be like a closed loop that is very hard to break out of once it gets going. But with effective treatment for anxiety you can learn to break the cycle and restore your ability to think clearly and act independently of worry.