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Attentional Biases of Anxiety Disorders, meet Positive Psychology

written by Merche Ovejero 8 May 2013

Merche Ovejero has a degree in Psychology from the University Complutense of Madrid (UCM), Spain. She is currently a doctoral student in the Personality, Assessment and Psychological Treatment (PETRA II) department at UCM, where she is an "honorary collaborator" who advises other doctoral students in methodology and data analysis. She is the regional representative for Spain in the International Positive Psychology Students Association.

Merche's articles in Spanish are here and ones that have been translated into English are here.

Author’s Note: It is a great honor for me to introduce the authors of this article, Marta Velázquez Gil and Esther Lázaro Olmedo. Both of them are first course students from the degree of Psychology at Complutense University, Madrid (Spain). They are a great example of interest, motivation, and engagement of the new generation of psychology students related to Positive Psychology. This work was presented during a class of Psychology of Attention and Executive Functions and received very positive feedback from their classmates as well as from the professor. People who attend the Third World Congress on Positive Psychology in Los Angeles will have the opportunity to meet Marta Velázquez.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Positive Psychology News Daily en Español.

What are attentional and cognitive biases?

An attentional bias is a predisposition of our attention to process certain types of information before others. According to Vuilleuimer, we are biologically designed to process threats before positive stimuli. We know nowadays that this predisposition helps us locate and search resources to solve the problem.

Attentional biases may contribute to cognitive biases, defined as opinions or prejudgements developed on the basis of the interpretation of the available information, seeing relationships that may not exist. Cognitive biases may occur when people filter information through their own likes, dislikes, and experiences. How people manage their attention processing affects their cognitive beliefs, actions and choices.

Albert Ellis said that events do not cause suffering. What happens to us “is not” good or bad. It is our interpretation of events and the meaning we give to them that is responsible for our way of feeling about them.

Characteristics of Attentional and Cognitive Biases in Anxiety

Attentional and cognitive biases in anxiety are characterized by their intrinsic negativity, in particular, their consistency in selecting threatening stimuli instead of neutral or positive stimuli. This leads to consequences in the person’s life, altering psychosocial well-being, especially in the case of anxiety disorders.

According to Ellis, attentional biases may appear at several levels:

  • In the way we think: The irrational ideas described by Ellis are a good example of attentional biases leading to cognitive biases. These beliefs and thoughts tend to have both absolute and dogmatic intention (everything/anything, always/never). We express them as a requirement: I should…, I have to…, I must…
  • In the way we feel: Emotions evoked by attentional biases in people with anxiety disorders are negative and constitute a barrier when trying to assimilate reality objectively and to achieve goals in daily life.
  • In what we do: Attentional biases are manifested in the way people cope with anxiety, where they may pay particular attention to situations that are considered threatening. These behaviors may include inhibitory behaviors such as avoiding doing something to deal with the situation, as in the case of social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. They may also be excitatory behaviors such as compulsions and addictions, where people try to reduce or avoid their anxiety by doing what they consider safety behaviors.

How can Positive Psychology help with Attentional Biases?

We interviewed Merche Ovejero concerning ways that Positive Psychology could ameliorate attentional biases. The full interview is available on YouTube in Spanish. Here are some of the things we learned from her about relevant interventions from Positive Psychology.

“Positive Psychology is a complement to other therapies such as cognitive-behavioral or third-generation therapies such as the acceptance and commitment therapy. […]

One of the big reasons is that Positive Psychology studies positive affect. It is very important when you are working with biases because a bias is to see only a part of reality. […]

A person’s emotional map, the more complex it is and the more a person evolves especially with regard to positive affect, the better able the person is to avoid and prevent negative attentional biases from taking over and making them see reality in pessimistic ways that lead to an anxiety disorder.

Another tip is working with the gratitude journal. The purpose of a gratitude journal is to write down three good things that happened throughout the day. What this technique does is to draw attention to the little details of life that often people with anxiety disorders have forgotten or taken for granted. Their attentional biases lead them to be unaware of good things in daily life. The gratitude journal opens the attentional focus toward the positive. […]

It is important to be aware of things that are going well, working to foster gratitude, one of the signature strengths proposed by Peterson and Seligman.

Working with hope and optimism, another character strength, is another way to handle attentional biases.”

In addition to working on people’s emotional maps, gratitude journals, and character strengths, mindfulness interventions are very useful. Interventions based on mindfulness are proving highly effective with components of anxiety disorders. We want to highlight the study carried out by Ryan Niemiec, Tayyab Rashid and Marcelo Spinella, in which they demonstrate the importance of integrating the strengths and the practice of mindfulness in daily life.

Ellis, A. & Maclaren, C. (2004). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Therapist’s Guide, Second Edition (Practical Therapist). Impact Publishers.

Fernández-Abascal, E. (coord) (2009). Emociones positivas/ Positive emotions (Psicologia) (Spanish Edition). Madrid: Pirámide.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.

Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., y Boehm, J. K. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: an experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11, 391-402. doi: 10.1037/a0022575

Niemiec, R. M., Rashid, T. & Spinella, M. (2012). Strong mindfulness: Integrating mindfulness and character strengths. International Journal of Well Being, 34, 240-253.

Vuilleumier, P. (2002). Facial expression and selective attention. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 15, 291-300.

Photo Credit: via Compfight cc
Open eye courtesy of littlefishyjes
Dreaming of being a somebody courtesy of Marta Velázquez
Joy of flying kites courtesy of CubaGallery

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1 comment

Paul Koppel 22 February 2014 - 2:22 am

Positive thinking will bring a great change in life. Being happy will makes you more smarter and more creative. Maintain some Optimism in life which helps to reduce anxiety. Try to be more funny and add some future in life.


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