David Wilkinson

Banisher of fears, slayer of anxiety & developer of emotional resilience

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Why our thoughts get all bent out of shape when we are anxious.

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One of the problems with anxiety (as opposed to fear) is that we start to understand and see things differently. A study published yesterday by researchers at Oklahoma State University shows that people suffering from social anxiety disorder (S.A.D.) have what scientists call 'self-focussed attention'. Self-focussed attention means that an individual weighs evidence from internal perceptual sources as much, and often more than, evidence from external sources. What this means is that is an individual with low self esteem is likely to ignore evidence from others or from other objective sources that they have worth or can do something, rather believing instead what they feel and think internally. Given that the individual is in a state of anxiety and has low self-esteem you can guess where the conclusions of these feelings and thoughts are likely to lead.  

What this study shows that not only does self-focussed attention make the level of anxiety worse it also shows that the individuals thinking, rationale and ability to weigh things up objectively is significantly impaired during anxious episodes. 

In short when we are anxious we are much more likely to believe our (negative) feelings about a situation as opposed to objective evidence of the situation from what we see and hear. If you have ever made a parachute jump you are quite likely to understand exactly what this feels like!

People with anxieties like the fear of flying, fear of public speaking etc are all doing the same thing; paying much more attention to what their frightened internal feelings and perceptions are telling them than what the objective facts are. These internal feelings and perceptions are heightened, because of the anxiety, to any hint of a negative outcome no matter how small a possibility that bad outcome is, whilst at the same time ignoring or reducing any external evidence to the contrary. 

Self-focussed attention reduces emotional resilience and the ability to regulate our own emotions.

In effect the phenomenon of self-focussed attention makes the whole situation worse by locking the individual inside themselves, and it's scary in there. 



Ingram R. (1990) Self-focussed attention in clinical disorders: Review and conceptual model. Psychological Bulletin. Vol 107. No.2. Pp156-176 

Judah, M. R. et al (2013) The Neural Correlates of Impaired Attentional Control in Social Anxiety: An ERP Study of Inhibition and Shifting. Emotion, Aug 5 , 2013, doi: 10.1037/a0033531

Free webinar 15th August 2013



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David Wilkinson was orignally educated as a psychologist with degrees and higher degrees from the Open University and the University of Oxford. He lectures at the University of Oxford in the Medical Sciences Division and at Oxford Brookes University in the School of Business. He is the author of a number of books on emotional resilience and emotion regulation including the series of books and ebooks offered by the Fear Course. He also has coaching and counselling qualifications from the BAC and the University of Cambridge.

His wikipedia page can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Wilkinson_http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Wilkinson_(ambiguity_expert)(ambiguity_expert)

He has blogs here, here and herehere