Anxious individuals are focused on scanning for potential threats, but this can be reduced through training

Anxious individuals are focused on scanning for potential threats, but this can be reduced through training

Two studies conducted in Iran found that the tendency to seek out potential social threats, an important feature of social anxiety, is independent of depression. Additionally, research has shown that people with anxiety can undergo training to reduce their focus on detecting threats. The results were published in Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of fear and worry that have a significant and negative impact on a person’s daily life. Social anxiety disorder is the most common type of these disorders. It is the third most frequent psychiatric among adults and adolescents.

Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is characterized by an intense and persistent fear of social situations and of being scrutinized or judged by others. People with this disorder typically experience a strong fear of embarrassment, humiliation, or negative evaluation in social interactions. This fear often leads them to avoid social situations altogether.

Studies have revealed that individuals with social anxiety tend to pay more attention to potential social threats (i.e., situations that can lead to scrutiny, embarrassment, and similar adverse developments). This amplifies their perceived level of threat in the environment leading to exacerbation of symptoms. Anxiety disorders are commonly associated with depression.

Study author Javad S. Fadardi and his colleagues wanted to determine whether this attention bias, the tendency to pay more attention to potential social threats and scan them constantly, is related to depression or is a specificity of social anxiety disorder. . They also wanted to test the effectiveness of a program called the Social Anxiety Attention Control Training Program (ATCP-SA for short) in teaching people with social anxiety disorder to reduce threat attention bias social, thereby enhancing the effects of therapy in such individuals. .

The participants in the first study were 60 students from Ferdowsi University in Mashad, Iran. Thirty of them met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety and 30 of them did not meet this criterion and served as a control group. The control group’s general state anxiety levels were similar to those of the experimental group. The majority of participants (77%) in the experimental group and control group (89%) were female.

Participants completed symptom assessments of social anxiety (the Conners Social Phobia Inventory), anxiety as a trait and as a state (the Spielbergers State-Trait Anxiety Inventory), depression (the Beck Depression Inventory-Second Edition), and attentional bias for stimuli-related disorder (an emotional Stroop test).

The 30 participants with social anxiety from the first study also participated in the second. The researchers randomly assigned them to two groups. One was to undergo the attention control training program for social anxiety, while the other would undergo sham treatment.

Both groups completed four exercise sessions lasting 45 minutes each. There were two training sessions a week. After completing the training courses, the participants completed the same assessments they did at the start of the first study. They completed them again 3 months later (follow-up).

The Social Anxiety Attention Control Training Program was a modified version of the computerized alcohol attention control training program. The goal of the training was to modify the participants’ excessive and automatic attention to socially threatening stimuli, reduce the time it takes to withdraw their attention from these stimuli, and alter their cognitive processes so that they seek out and choose neutral stimuli instead. .

The training itself consists of presenting a mixture of neutral and socially threatening images and teaching participants to pay equal attention to both types, thus reducing the tendency to focus completely on the threatening ones.

The results of the first study showed that participants with social anxiety disorder actually showed greater attentional bias for relevant stimuli and for life goal-related stimuli (on the emotional Stroop test) than the control group. This difference remained even when the depression was controlled. This indicated that the tendency to focus excessively on socially threatening stimuli is not due to depression.

The results of study two showed that the group undergoing the attention control training for social anxiety had slightly fewer symptoms of social anxiety after the intervention and particularly in the follow-up. Participants in this group also showed a strong reduction in attentional bias, both at the posttest and at follow-up.

“The rapid distraction of socially anxious individuals by threatening stimuli manifests as attentional distortion. Furthermore, focusing on threatening stimuli could increase these individuals’ level of anxiety and alertness to these stimuli. Reducing the attention bias for threatening stimuli and instead focusing on neutral stimuli can break the vicious cycle. Breaking this cycle at any point will, in turn, reduce individuals’ vulnerability to social anxiety,” concluded the study authors.

The study provides an important contribution to the scientific understanding of the psychological mechanisms underlying social anxiety disorder. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into consideration. In particular, all participants were students and volunteers, therefore self-selected for participation. It is possible that the results in other age groups and in participants who are not as enthusiastic about the treatment as the participants in this study may not be the same.

The study, “Scary in the Eye of the Beholder: Attentional Bias and Attention Retraining for Social Anxiety,” was written by Javad S. Fadardi, Sepideh Memarian, John Parkinson, W. Miles Cox, and Alan W. Stacy.

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