CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a go-to therapy approach because it has been shown in multiple studies and experiments to deliver superior results in randomised control trials, especially for people struggling with anxiety and depressive disorders.
The way in which CBT typically works is by working with a professional to recognise your problems, analyse them, and change the cognitive mechanisms (e.g. biases) that keep their anxiety going.
Gradually recognising and shifting these thought patterns, people can start to feel more confident to change their behaviours which often leads to realisations about how their anxiety can be reduced.
This is specifically important because we know that anxiety is, largely, driven by attentional biases.
What is attentional bias?
Attentional bias is a term used to describe a specific pattern in what one pays attention. Attentional bias typically results in someone paying more attention on a given stimulus while ignoring everything else (e.g. always paying attention to how our hair looks like when in public situations)
For example, using, with social anxiety, we might fear that someone might judge us negatively if our hair does not look good. This makes us pay excessive attention to how our hair looks like, so we can correct them and avoid negative judgment.
It’s important to appreciate why it is common for people to develop an attentional bias. It’s a protective strategy that we subconsciously adopt to protect ourselves from a perceived threat in our environment.
This may seem useful in the short-run. However, if unchecked, this sort of attentional bias can lead to persistent fear of being judged and generate social anxiety.
Can attention training help with social anxiety?
Attentional Training is one technique that teaches us how to intentionally shift what we pay attention to in the moment. The training can range from more psychotherapy based training (CBT) to mindful guided meditation.
The key concept of attentional bias training is to implicitly train attention away from negative information towards neutral or positive information. With enough practice, you can start doing that while you are in social situations and observe how this reduces anxiety.
In a 2008 study (link), Li and colleagues, examined a group of people who reported that they experience social anxiety to assess the effects of attentional training.
Attentional bias training in this particular study was done on a computer, with a method of training attention called the ‘dot and probe’ which is used to measure selective attention and attentional biases.
The participants were randomly split into two groups in which one group were given the dot-probe paradigm and the other groups was under a neutral control training condition for 7 consecutive days.
The study found that attention training was particularly effective for reducing symptoms of social anxiety in general social interactions.
This study alone had some limitations (e.g. small sample size) and cannot prove that attention training by itself is the ultimate solution to all aspects of social anxiety including fear of judgement by others. However existing studies and the current attentional bias training in CBT indicates that it might be worth trying if you struggle with moving attention away from yourself in social contexts.
How can I train my attention?
If you’d like to get a quick sense of how attention training feels like, you can practise this Open Focus exercise for 3-minutes, in a quiet space.
Another way to try this through our app — The Alena app (if you’d like to try Alena in beta, sign up here: https://my-aya.typeform.com/to/KZxASluS). If you already have the beta version of the app, you can go to All Exercises and try the “Learn to shift your attention” exercise.
Let us know what you think in the comments section below.