Anxious People Focus on Negative Cues That Others Don’t

Let’s pretend for a moment you’re giving a presentation in a room full of very important people. You want their feedback—ideally, some sign of positive approval—because you know you’re being evaluated.

You look to a person in the front row. You notice their facial expression: a furrowed brow, sideways smirk, maybe a disapproving head shake. You begin to panic. You notice other people in the crowd looking the same way. Your mind races and you can’t concentrate. You completely botch the presentation. The negative feeling sticks with you, and every time you have to give a talk, you’re faced with a crippling sense of anxious dread, triggered by the thought of repeat failure.

But here’s the thing. What you didn’t notice the first time around is that there were probably more smiling, happy faces in the crowd than scowling ones.

Yes, it’s true, we tend to pay more attention to the negative than positive. It’s a hardwired evolutionary-based response that makes the brain notice the losses more than the gains. Unfortunately, such biases in our evolved cognition can also contribute to negative emotionality.

In fact, the attentional bias towards threat and negativity is the core cognitive mechanism that underlies much of our anxiety. Recent experimental work, however, is now showing that this default cognition can be reversed. We can train our biases to shift our focus (and thinking) away from the negative and towards the positive.

For anxious people, the ingrained habit of selectively attending to only those things that are possibly dangerous leads to a vicious cycle in which an ambiguous world is seen and experienced as threatening—even when it’s not. Cognitive bias modification (CBM) training is an innovative intervention that’s been shown to break individuals out of that vicious cycle, and to “cut the anxiety off at the pass.”

Article by Nick Hobson for Psychology Today via Vice US

Picture by Gary Alvis / Getty Images