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Anxiety and Attentional Bias

A caveman walks an ancient path in the fading light of evening.  His head swivels from side to side, scanning for signs of danger.  His eyes quickly dart from right to left.


Suddenly, something rustles in the ferns beside the pathway.  What was that?  A tiger?  A rival clan member?  The caveman’s head stops moving as he stares at the rustling ferns intensely.  His world just became a very small place.


This is how attention works in the context of anxiety.  Research shows that anxious people often have an “attentional bias” for threatening information, which makes us predisposed to finding signs of possible danger.


Say everything in the world is divided into four categories: fences (i.e., protective things), flowers (i.e., positive things), coffee cups (i.e., mundane things), and tigers (i.e., threatening things).  Anxious people are not overly attentive to fences, coffee cups, or flowers.  But we do tend to focus intensely on signs of tigers.  When a plane is taking off, for example, we notice scary-but-harmless noises more than the sound of healthy engines.  Our attention is biased toward focusing on threats.


This attentional bias, as you might expect, can really fuel anxiety — especially when it gets turned inward.  Anxious people often monitor their internal worlds the same way they engage in external threat scanning.  This makes us hyperattuned to the mechanics of our bodies, particularly those related to danger and performance problems.  Illuminated by a narrowed attentional spotlight, a heartbeat sounds like a thunderous drum and a tiny voice quiver seems deafening.



Dylan M. Kollman, PhD