One of the problems with anxiety and psychopathology in general is lack of psychological flexibility which translates without exception into poor attention training skills. When self-critical, self-blame thoughts, worry or shameful thoughts enter our awareness, our attention is literally hijacked by these thoughts and we start engaging with them.
For example, in the case of clinical perfectionism, when we are requested to produce an important business report we tend to worry about the language, typos, the format and so on, even after it has been completed. After we submit our work we might continue to worry about it or about the perceived negative feedback we could receive as a result of poor quality work. Of course, these are all false projections into the future or even catastrophical predictions (e.g. this is the end of me, I will lose my job this time 100%).
When these negative thoughts (predictions and so on) enter our mind our attention is 100% directed towards the content of such thoughts, which triggers our sense of threat. This means that our brain (and body) starts to believe that we are under threat and it responds by further triggering the Autonomic Nervous System (the sympathetic response), which manifests through a range of physiological symptoms of anxiety (heart racing, sweating, etc.). And thus, the ‘perceived threats’ start to ‘feel’ real. Over time and with lots of practice such negative thoughts begin to govern our existence and become more and more believable. In other words we become very good at getting anxious.
Selective and narrowed attention, directed towards the content of the thought (e.g. false predictions about the future) is clearly one of the principle precipitating (or triggering) factors and also an important perpetuating (or maintaining) factor in anxiety disorders.
So what can we do about it? Some of the methods involve learning to re-orient the attention towards something else, more positive or more constructive. But at times this exercise alone, would often fail. We have more recently discovered that, re-orienting the attention towards the breath and breathing, enables a shift towards the ANS parasympathetic response (the rest mode) which cancels symptoms of anxiety generated by the ANS sympathetic response (the threat mode) by encouraging a calm and relaxed state. When the action of breathing is coupled with a visualised self-instruction, the process is significantly faster and longer lasting.
For example, right this moment, direct your attention towards your breath, feel the air coming in and out for a few seconds, slow your breath down (shorter inhalations and longer exhalations) then.. with each outbreath, merge more and more into your favourite relaxation place (could be your garden, a yoga class, or your favourite holiday spot). Try it once again, right now…
Awareness is key! Every time a negative thought enters your mind, you could train yourself to be aware by simply noticing without judgement that, this is happening. At this stage, you can start training your ‘attention muscles‘. Notice your thoughts, accept them as just thoughts and zoom out, bring your attention back to the present task (to whatever it is that you were doing a moment earlier) and then take your attention back to the thought – is it now just as captivating as it was earlier or did it move on? Accept if the thoughts are still there.. but also accept if they are not… just be an observer of your own mind… Be proud of your newly discovered ability and don’t attempt to master this. Allow for mistakes, just notice that sometimes you cannot get it right… remind yourself you are still in training. You are a student of your mind… indeed of your life… just allow this natural movement to happen.
Awareness (or self-awareness rather) is attention training !
Attention training is a major component in NeuroAffective-CBT and mindfulness based therapies which places this type of therapy under the third wave umbrella (see previous article on Third-Wave CBT). By paying attention to what happens right now (in the present moment), and doing it with an accepting attitude (towards whatever you notice), you become a safe and confident observer of your internal world and experience… your breath, body sensations, thoughts, feelings, sensory experiences, etc. Awareness and attention training involves practising how to notice when your attention is wandering away from the present, and then skilfully redirecting your attention back to the ‘here and now’. This is not an attempt to suppress, neutralise or control your thoughts in any way. But instead allowing these thoughts to be present and active, to do what they are meant to be doing. At the same time, develop efficacy and confidence by choosing to shift your attention back on to something purposeful.
For specialist courses in attention training follow the link below – the training is open to all !