Attention Training for wellbeing – welcome post from Jo
Hi my name is Jo. I’ll be contributing to Voxel Hub page with blog posts about various mental health topics, which will include useful steps you can take to support your wellbeing. My aim is to help positively impact people through writing and art.
There’s a key technique in the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) treatment of social anxiety that, when practiced by anyone, can help people start to feel more content and optimistic. This technique is called attention training.
To give you a rough overview of the CBT theory of social anxiety, when someone is feeling nervous in a social situation they have a tendency to focus their attention on “How am I doing? How am I feeling?” This causes them to notice all the anxiety symptoms whirling around their body, like feeling hot and sweaty, shaky legs, knots in the stomach, or a tight chest. They also notice anxious thoughts like “I’m going to say something stupid” or “What if people don’t like me?” All this maintains a sense of anxiety in social situations.
Attention training, therefore, encourages people to deliberately switch their focus to the external world. For people struggling with social anxiety this would be to start paying more attention to their surroundings and what people are talking about. This helps move attention away from the anxiety they are feeling inside themselves, and the unhelpful thoughts swirling in their minds.
As a CBT therapist helping people to understand and use this technique, I’ve seen how effective it can be at helping people feel more comfortable and happy in social situations, and anyone can use this technique to start looking at the world in a different way. Imagine you have a torch and you enter a dark room. When you shine your torch it will only illuminate the area in the room which you’ve chosen to look at. The illuminated area takes all your attention but everything else in the room is still there, hidden away in the dark. Unless you move the torch around the whole room you’ll only have seen a small percentage of the whole image available. This is the same for anything, if you only pay attention to anxiety symptoms you’ll feel scared and nervous, if you only pay attention to your inner critic you’ll feel sad and unworthy, if you only pay attention to the bad news you’ll feel hopeless and out of control, if you only pay attention to filtered images of people’s appearance you’ll feel unattractive.
You have a choice where to shine your torch light. This is not about ignoring difficulties or putting up with bad situations, it’s about acknowledging these as well as noticing other aspects of life.
You can experiment with attention training using the ideas below. At first, expect to feel some resistance to focussing on more positive aspects of the world and your life. This is normal. You may have built up a habit of only noticing unpleasant events and experiences, and new habits take effort and time to form. Give them a go and see what effect they have:
- At the end of each day write down three things for which you feel thankful. You can include people, places, and events, anything which you feel grateful for. Be specific, for example: “I’m grateful for my friend” versus a more specific statement “I’m grateful for my friend Izzy because she sends me supportive texts”
- Use digital technology to support your attention training experiment by focussing on inspiring social media accounts, websites which report good news stories, and apps designed to encourage wellbeing.
- Every day for 30 days write out 30 things you love without repeating any of the items you list. Start each of the 30 sentences with a simple “I love” and then add whatever it is you feel passionate about. As the 30 days progress, the exercise forces you to become really specific and start noticing the details and the small things which enrich your life. For example “I love colours” becomes “I love purple because it reminds me of my favourite dress”, and “I love nature” becomes “I love snowdrops because they remind me spring is on the way” At the end of this exercise you’ll have paid attention to 900 things you love.
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Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash