Dr. Brady Nelson and colleagues at Stony Brook University recently published a study in the journal Biological Psychology which found that you can mute the brain’s anxiety/threat response with simple shifts in attentional training.
They found that a brief 5-10 minutes intervention of Cognitive Bias Modification (or CBM) training is enough to reverse a default neural response, a supposed hardwiring that creates a negativity bias in our attention. In CBM training the default gets shifted to allow a person to instead focus more on positive cues. At the level of cognition, this helps cuts off the cascade of an anxiety response.
Let’s imagine you’re giving a pitch to a group of investors. You’re nervous. Your gaze falls on the person in the front row. You notice their facial expression: a furrowed brow, sideways smirk, maybe a disapproving head shake. You begin to panic. You notice other people in the crowd looking the same. Your mind races and you can’t concentrate. You completely botch the presentation.
The negative feeling sticks with you, and every time you have to give a talk, you’re faced with a crippling sense of anxious dread, triggered by the thought of repeat failure.
But all the while, you didn’t notice that there were actually more smiling happy faces in the crowd than scowling ones.
Humans notice the negative more than the positive. It’s a hardwired evolutionary-based response that makes the brain more sensitive to loss than to gain. This negativity bias in cognition allowed us to survive as a species, but is crippling for life in the modern world.
New research, however, offers a solution: We can change our brain (and overcome anxiety) by training ourselves to pay more attention to the positive.
Train your attention, change your brain.
The tendency to pay attention to negative things is the reason you often have such difficult overcoming anxiety. It is, unfortunately, a default psychology. But the science is beginning to show that this default state can be overridden and reversed. You can train your attention. You can change your brain.
It’s called cognitive bias modification training, or CBM. A simple but highly effective intervention practice that nudges you to look for the positive things in your immediate environment.
The best cues you can use for training: Faces. Why faces? Because your brain is highly sensitive to the information they convey. You are programmed to detect all kinds of emotions, both positive and negative, on the faces of other people.
Try the following. Next time you’re in a social setting, challenge yourself to “find” the positive emotions on faces. There are several different contexts where this can work:
- People watching (on transit, out in crowded public spaces, etc.): Start off by just watching other people in a crowd. Make sure that you’re looking around at people is “normal” given the context you’re in. You have to be careful that your people watching doesn’t become awkward staring.
- Small group gatherings: These are places where there’s a larger group of people all broken off into smaller groups for discussion (e.g., networking event). As you engage in conversation with a few people, try to find the positive facial expressions.
- Formal presentations: This can be a great place to do CBM training. But it can quickly backfire, as our initial example in the above intro illustrates. The reason is because those emotional reactions are directed towards you and what you’re saying. It’s much more personal. Work your way up to this last stage of CBM training.
Across all these contexts, what positive emotion cues are you looking for? It’s more than just a simple smile. Go deeper. For example, positive emotion (on the face) happens through the movements of tiny facial muscles. Look out for the ever-so-subtle musculature changes in these three main areas:
- The sides of the mouth pinching together and raising up (muscle called the zygomaticus major).
- The nose raising on either side and creating a “shelf” across a line of the nostrils (muscle called the levator labii).
- The outer edges of the eyes crinkling and creating a squinting expression (muscle called the orbicularis oculi).
The most positive facial cues are when all three muscle regions are activated (also creates the distinction between a “real” and “fake” smile). Challenge yourself to find people’s faces that have all three.
In addition to these in-the-moment interventions, there’s also now various CBM apps/games being developed. An online program called MindHabit includes a number of games that get users to find the smile in an array of faces. They also have a similar game that uses positive/negative words rather than faces.
Similarly, a new app called Happy Faces is giving user-friendly CBM training with various types of stimuli. A bonus feature with their app is it offers personalized training where you can include your own pictures as part of the game stimuli. So the faces you attend to during the game aren’t random strangers, but people you know.
Get into the simple habit of playing these games for as little as 5-10 minutes a day. These small exercises and games are easy to implement and have shown to effectively train attention. By focusing more and more on the positive, and pulling attention away from the negative, you are effectively cutting anxiety off at the pass. You aren’t letting it take hold. And now, new research is offering further evidence that it works by altering activation patterns in certain key brain regions.
The study: The brain’s response to CBM training
The researchers behind the study were curious to see if a single training session of CBM would affect a neural marker called the error-related negativity (ERN).
The ERN a brainwave that reflects a person’s sensitivity to threat. It fires whenever the brain encounters possible errors or sources of uncertainty, leading a person to notice things that might be going wrong around them. But it’s not all good. The ERN can go haywire. For instance, it’s known to be larger in people with anxiety-related disorders, including GAD and OCD. A large ERN is indication of a hyper-vigilant brain that is constantly “on the lookout” for potential problems—even when no problems exist.
In the current study, the researchers predicted that a single CBM training session would help curb this threat response and lead to an immediate reduction in the ERN.
The researchers randomly assigned participants to either a CBM training or control condition. Both groups performed a task, once before the training (or control) and then again after. They had their ERN activity monitored using electroencephalographic recording (EEG). This technology uses a wearable cap with embedded electrodes that track and record the electrical activity of the brain — in real-time. The participants in the study completed a task that generated a number of performance failures. What the researchers were curious to see was the level of reactivity the brain showed (in this ERN signal) in response to these failures. Remember:
- a sensitive (and anxious) brain would see failures as more negative = larger ERN signal
- a resilient (and calming) brain would see failures as less negative = smaller ERN signal
So the real question: Can a one-off “find-the-face” CBM task help pull a person’s attention away from the negative and lead to a smaller ERN?
In line with the predictions, they found that those who underwent the short CBM training elicited a smaller ERN compared to the control participants. The brain’s threat response was reduced from before to after the training, simply by instructing people to shift their attention towards positive (and away from the negative) stimuli.
The results indicate that CBM training minimizes the brain’s negativity bias by targeting the ERN—in effect by dampening the brain’s sensitivity to failure and uncertainty.
And an actual change in brain state through a single session of CBM is particularly encouraging when you consider the fact that cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBT) have not been shown to elicit such neural changes.
One important implication of this work is that CBM is capable of altering brain activity in people from a non-clinical population. Majority of prior research has looked at people with anxiety-related psychopathologies. Here the findings suggest that everyone can benefit from CBM, and that everyone looking to achieve peak mental performance can benefit from overcoming anxiety.
Recap and wrap-up
A minimal level of anxiety and stress is a good thing for peak performers. It keeps you on your toes. But too much of the negative, and things can begin to go awry. The question is, then, how do you stay in that optimal zone?
CBM training is highly effective in its ability to alter the target source of your brain’s hardwired negativity bias. Through implicit, experiential, and rapid-based training, we are coming to understand that the core negativity response can be muted in order to get into the anxiety sweet spot.
Remember to engage in these simple exercises, whether it’s in-the-moment or on an app. Your job is to override the negative default state, and direct your attention towards the positive, away from the negative. Start with the apps/games to familiarize yourself with the process. Then work your way up to real-life social situations.