I was looking through some older journal articles I collected over the course of my graduate school tenure when I came across one in particular that I enjoyed. This paper has to do with the relationship between self-focused attention and anxiety.
Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema’s research on rumination has elucidated this link between attention and dysphoria, albeit in a specific form. Rumination has to do specifically with an attentional fixation on the symptoms of personal distress, be it mental illness or otherwise. An interesting aside: Women tend to ruminate more than men, who are more likely to distract themselves from their distress rather than mull over it. Of course, the form of that distraction may take a variety of forms — drug abuse & completed suicides are more common amongst men. I’ll discuss this concept of distraction a little more a bit later on.
This paper (Muraven, 2005) has to do more with self-focused attention in two different forms: public vs. private.
- Private self-consciousness has to do with egocentrically focused thoughts; the self considering the self
- Public self-consciousness has to do with the perception of the self as seen by others
Now, normally, thinking about yourself isn’t that bad. We all do it to some extent. Self-focused attention after positive events does not seem to lead to depression, anxiety, or anything nasty. However, self-focus after negative events seems to deepen whatever baseline dysphoria one experiences following a failure or other depressing event.
"Well, why not try to distract your self-focus following a negative event?" Ah-hah. Therein lies the problem of distractibility. Some individuals simply find it easier to distract themselves from themselves, whereas others have more difficulty disengaging from this self-focus. People will occasionally go to great lengths to forget themselves (hence: drug use, suicide, behavioral addictions, etc). Think of it like a train wreck: you think it’s horrible, but you somehow cannot bring yourself to look away. It is your life after all. Self-focus is evidently aversive in certain circumstances, but "shifting attention away from the self is not a trivial or easy endeavor." And of course, it’s more unbearable the more chronic and inescapable this self-focus is.
Anyway, back to the paper.
Muraven (2005) hypothesizes that there is an interaction effect that occurs amongst individuals high in self-focused attention and low in self-focus flexibility. In other words, the more dysphoric and anxious the individual, the more self-focused the individual will be, and this effect will be heightened by the individual’s attentional inflexibility. The main distinction in this effect is that between generalized anxiety and social phobia: those who have generalized anxiety & depression will have more private self-consciousness, whereas social phobics will tend to have higher levels of public self-consciousness.
After taking a number of participants (N = 112) through a battery of psychological tests (e.g. Spielberger Trait Anxiety Inventory, Self-Consciousness Questionnaire, Beck Depression Inventory), participants were tasked with a two-part experiment where they were 1) asked to indicate what words flashed on a computer screen referred to themselves and 2) asked to indicate what words described a separate person, specific to each individual. During the two portions of this task, the computer would beep 6 times during the initial self-focus component, 6 times during second external focus component. Participants were told to click the mouse as quickly as possible following this audible prompt. This was a reaction time task meant to judge attentional flexibility, unbeknownst to the participants.
Lo and behold, Muraven finds his hypothesis confirmed: individuals high in private self-consciousness with slower reaction times also rated themselves high on the Beck Depression Inventory and the Trait Anxiety Inventory; individuals high in public self-consciousness with slower reaction times also rated themselves high on the social anxiety subscale of the Self-Consciousness Questionnaire.
This study offers one possible clue as to the source of the mental sluggishness and discombobulation depressed and anxious individuals occasionally experience. Think about it: the more cognitive effort you are expending thinking about yourself (or thinking about how others perceive you), the less attentional capacity you have to expend on other matters.
This extreme, inflexible self-focus is how a benign hiccup, gaffe, faux pas, or failure can spiral into a full-blown major depressive episode and/or panic attack. The self-focus is fed by negativistic and overly critical automatic thoughts, and cause the depressed or anxious individual to shrink inside themselves. It is unclear as to which comes first (i.e. inflexible self-focus leading to mental dysfunction, or the mental dysfunction leading to the inflexible self-focus), but it is clear that obsessive self-focused attentional processes play a strong role in the maintenance of dysfunction.
I suppose the take away point from this article is to develop some healthy habits that help to distract or distance you from yourself. Ideally, this would be something tangible that confronts or treats some of the roots of your anxiety or depression. Of course, sometimes the best way to distract yourself from yourself is to reach out to others and give yourself to them.
Thoughts on this? Do you find it difficult to distract yourself from yourself when you’re anxious/depressed? What are some things you to do distract yourself from yourself?
As usual, the 'ask' box is always open.