I grew up with high anxiety, and at times wondered if my tendency to brood and overthink could be fueling my anxiety and stress. After several years of researching ways to cope with anxiety, I was convinced that an excessive tendency toward “inward attention” could indeed be the primary reason for my anxiety.
By diverting your attention away from your thoughts and focusing your visual attention on the world outside, you will be able to overcome your negative thoughts and emotions. The idea is cutting-edge and still in its initial stages; it’s best not to take it as qualified medical advice.
However, the technique is simple enough for anyone to try out and does not have any potential for obvious adverse effects.
Based on the large amount of anecdotal evidence that I gathered, I theorized in the Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses that psychiatric illnesses could be alleviated by counteracting inward attention with externally directed visual attention.1
Much research over the last two decades has found that an excessive tendency toward inward attention correlates with a wide range of psychiatric disorders. R.E. Ingram, widely considered to be one of most experienced researchers on the subject, noted that “it is difficult to find a psychological disorder that is not characterized by a heightened degree of self-focused attention.”2 Not surprisingly, these days, cognitive models of several disorders incorporate “inward attention” in their theoretical framework.
“Inward attention” describes where one’s attention is on one’s thoughts and feelings rather than the outside world. Hence, the term “inward attention” includes reflecting on your thinking, being self-absorbed in your thoughts or any other activity that involves being engrossed in your thoughts to the exclusion of the world around you. People often engage in a state of excessive inward attention during times of fear, anxiety and negative mood.
Research indicates that an excessive tendency for engaging in one’s thought process occurs in psychiatric illnesses ranging from obsessive-compulsive disorder to schizophrenia. For example, in the case of a person with OCD, the occurrences of obsessive impulse often are accompanied by intense thinking about the rationality of the impulses. In the case of a socially anxious person who is about to give a public speech, he is more likely to be attending to his fears and thoughts than the audience outside. For a person with schizophrenia, his mind is so overwhelmed by his thoughts that he loses his ability to differentiate reality from his own thoughts.
The underlying neurobiological causes of these illnesses are indeed different. Hence, some people may be predisposed to OCD, some to schizophrenia, some to depression and so on. However, not everybody who may have an inherent predisposition actually goes on to develop an illness. It is accepted by several researchers that an excessive and prolonged tendency toward inward attention could be an important factor in the exacerbation of psychiatric illnesses.
Two reasons make inward attention so potent in exacerbating psychological problems.
First, when a person is engrossed in himself, he is more attentive to his thoughts and moods to the exclusion of the outside world. Being self-absorbed or engrossed in oneself amplifies the experience of negative thoughts and emotions.
Second, since inward attention amplifies a person’s engagement in his thoughts and emotions, the corresponding neural pathways are reinforced in the brain. Hence, these negative thoughts and emotions become more likely to recur in the future, leading to the exacerbation of psychiatric symptoms in a vicious cycle.
The best way to stop this vicious cycle is to constantly divert your attention to your surroundings so that you become less attentive to your inner thoughts and worries.Footnotes:
- Sebastian R. A novel technique of using externally directed visual attention to treat psychological illnesses. Med Hypotheses. 2013 Mar 11. pii: S0306-9877(13)00091-1. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2013.02.019. [↩]
- Ingram RE. Self focused attention in clinical disorders: review and a conceptual model. Psychol Bull 1990;2:156–76. [↩]
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 May 2013
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Sebastian, R. (2013). A Different Approach to Improve Emotional Well-Being & Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 11, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/05/13/a-different-approach-to-improve-emotional-well-being-happiness/