Fixed Attentional Focus

Another response mechanism that creates, maintains and intensifies psychological suffering is fixed attentional focus. 

The attentional bias in worry and OCD tends to be threat-related stimuli. Social anxiety is maintained by a self-focused attentional bias. Depression is maintained by a ruminative attentional bias.  

When you are worrying or stuck in obsessive content, your mind is hyper-vigilantly scanning for potential threats. As you scan for uncertainties and potential catastrophic possibilities, your mind will generate more possibilities and you will feel more uncertain and anxious. The sensations that come with anxiety create thought-action fusion, making the possibilities your mind generates seem more and more likely. Worrying and mental compulsions create more possibilities and the possibilities feel more and more likely, creating more and more anxiety and possibilities. 

When you are experiencing social anxiety, your mind will become self-focused. Rather than focusing on your task (such as speaking in a meeting or joining a conversation), your attentional focus shifts to what you are thinking and feeling. Many people get tangled in their self-focused attention and fight with themselves about whether or not they can complete the task while thinking and feeling whatever they are thinking and feeling. 

When you are experiencing depression, your mind will ruminate about the past. This is often triggered by the feeling of guilt, shame, or regret. If you didn’t already feel hopeless, helpless, or worthless, ruminating will get you there. 

The opposite of fixed attentional focus is flexible, present moment awareness. 

To shift your attentional focus during worry and mental compulsions, first, challenge the function of worry

When you notice hyper-vigilant scanning, bring yourself back to the present and describe what is actually occurring around you, rather than what you fear. 

To shift your attentional focus during social anxiety, focus on your original task. Set behavioral goals rather than feeling based goals. An example is committing to talking to two people at a meeting or party before leaving rather than leaving if you feel anxious. 

To shift your attentional focus during depression, resist the urge to ruminate. Try to identify the original feeling you felt prior to feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless. Consider whether you were feeling angry, lonely, guilty, ashamed, or regretful and work towards accepting those feelings without adding rumination and the feelings that come with it. 

Shifting your attentional focus to the present is always worth doing. To get there, 

  • Try thinking of a recent occasion that you were present and reflect on what you were doing to make that state possible. 
  • Use your senses to come into the present moment. What do you see, smell, here, taste? 
  • Take a deep breath and use your breath to come back to the present moment. 
  • Oftentimes, we having trouble being present when we are stuck in one of these other processes. If you’re having a lot of trouble using your breath or your senses to bring yourself intentionally into the present, let’s discuss where you might be stuck.