Pay Attention! The role of attention in maintaining anxiety.

The role of attention processes in maintaining excess anxiety: 510 words.

A few years ago I bought a car so I could commute to a new job. I showed my new car to my dad, and he took it for a spin. In the coming weeks my dad saw this model everywhere, and was soon convinced this must be one of the highest selling cars in Australia. I know some people in the automotive industry, and he wanted me to call my contacts and confirm his suspicions. But a quick look on the internet was enough to confirm that it wasn’t even in the top 10. What happened here is relevant to understanding anxiety disorders and trauma.

Our attention is drawn to things of importance and relevance to us. Consider the so called ‘cocktail party effect, where you can happily ignore the background noise of a party until someone mentions your name, which suddenly captures your attention. When under threat our attention is drawn to potential signs of danger, which makes sense if we are to keep ourselves safe. Nevertheless, we need only believe a situation to be dangerous to kick-start these processes, and upon entering those situations, our attention is drawn to any possible signs of danger. We become hypervigilant, and as the saying goes, the more we look, the more we see.

You can imagine a person who is afraid of public speaking (which is very common) standing in front of their audience and noticing every yawn, every distracted look and ambiguous facial expression that could represent dissatisfaction with their performance. As they see more potential threat, their anxiety rises, adding to the adrenalin fuelled fight and flight response – beating heart, faster breathing, tingling, shaking and dizziness; just what they needed in the middle of a speech. Even if nothing objectively goes wrong, someone in this state of mind will probably interpret the experience as a near miss, confirming and strengthening their expectations of threat for next time, and so the anxiety continues.

For my father, his son’s new car was of minor importance to him, but his attention was nevertheless directed towards similar cars on the road. For the anxiety sufferer, potential sources of threat are clearly significant, and so their hypervigilance can become a major way in which they sustain the impression that danger is all around. For our attention processes to be useful they generally need to be fast, so they are often automatic and hence out of awareness. And when they go unchecked they can become part of an anxiety disorder in the making.

So becoming consciously aware of these processes is the first step in learning to overcome them. It will take time, but when we feel anxious, we can take notice of what we are noticing, and then consciously develop a more balanced view of our circumstances. If successful, we will learn there is less to fear than we originally thought, and so not be so hypervigilant the next time. In this way we can slowly dissuade our mind from selectively seeking out signs of danger, and begin to take a more relaxed perspective on the world.

Author: Edward

Edward is a clinical psychologist and keen hiker.

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