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PsychNotes January-February 2013

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

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February 25, 2013

ACTS OF KINDNESS AND SOCIAL ANXIETY

Individuals with social anxiety often have problems with positive emotions. They tend to filter out the positive events and view the world and others through a negative lens. A consequence to this filter is often a self-fulfilling prophecy—the expectation of negative outcomes creates negative outcomes. In addition, the ability to experience positive emotions is related to overall psychological health and general well-being.

Sometimes people believe that this filter can't be changed, that it is just the way they think or even that it is an accurate reflection of the world. However, researchers Alden and Trew (2013) examined whether positive emotions could be enhanced in socially anxious people. They compared two groups of socially anxious individuals: one group engaged in acts of kindness towards others and the other group engaged in self-determined social exposures.

Interestingly, although both groups engaged in increased social interaction over the four weeks of the study, they found that the kindness group experienced increased positive emotions whereas the exposure group did not. In addition, the kindness group reported improved social relationships and reduced worries about negative social outcomes.

Based upon my clinical observations with clients, when people are socially anxious they are too caught up in thoughts and worries about themselves. They tend to believe that others are thinking about them as much and in the same negative way. The more they focus outside of themselves and observe what is truly occurring, the less socially anxious they become. I think this research shows an excellent way of doing this. When you are feeling socially anxious, do something kind for someone!

Alden, L.E. And Trew, J.L. (2013). If it makes you happy: Engaging in kind acts increases positive affect in socially anxious individuals, Emotion, 13, 64–75.



February 23, 2013

ANXIETY AND THE AVOIDANCE OF POSITIVE EMOTIONS

Individuals with a tendency for anxiety symptoms are inclined to dampen positive emotions according to a self-report study by Lori Eisner and colleagues. In other words, those with anxiety symptoms attempt to reduce their experience of positive emotions. Eisner speculated that for those with Panic Disorder this is due to a self-protective mechanism of trying to reduce all intense emotions whether negative or positive as a way to control panic. In addition, the researchers indicated that individuals with Social Phobia may attempt to reduce positive emotions due to fear of others observing their emotional responses.

In addition to the researchers' theories, the dampening of positive emotions may also be due to the fear of disappointment. In my practice, many clients report that they don't want to get excited or happy about a current or future event because they are fearful of a negative outcome in the future. They state “If I expect the worst, I won't be let down in the future.” Even while having a positive experience, they expect something bad to happen.

However, such thinking is an illusion of self-protection. The future disappointment will still be experienced. All that they have managed to accomplish is to feel bad for a longer period of time.

The problem with these attempts to control positive emotions is that the individual has fewer positive experiences which only contributes to the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Therefore, it is best to fully experience positive emotions when they are available because such emotions are the true self-protection as they contribute to a more enjoyable and pleasant life.

Eisner, L.R., Johnson, S.L, and Carver, C.S. (2009). Positive affect regulation in anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 645-649.



February 20, 2013

IMPROVING ATTENTION AND QUALITY OF EFFORT

Want to improve your ability to focus, reduce your stress, and increase your working memory? How about improving the quality and quantity of your work output while decreasing your stress? No, it's not a magic pill. Recent research has shown that mindfulness training with daily practice can help. And the best part of mindfulness is that it is pleasant to do, doesn't have side effects, and doesn't require equipment.

The research compared three groups over 8 weeks. Group 1 had mindfulness training consisting of mindful acceptance of bodily sensations, body scan training, sitting meditation, and hatha yoga. Group 2 had stress reduction training with guided relaxation and reduction of body sensations. Group 3 did not receive training but was paid for reducing test scores so as to determine how much of the result was due to effort. The three groups were compared to a control group that did not receive any intervention.

Interestingly, all three groups improved attentional ability with the paid group improving the most which indicates that effort increases ability to focus but so does mindfulness training and stress reduction training. However, only the mindfulness group and the stress reduction group showed decreases in cortisol, the stress hormone, during the study period.

Most importantly, however, were the test results for measuring attention during tedious tasks. The mindfulness group showed a reduction in errors during the middle of the task when the tiring effect caused the other groups to increase errors. In addition, the mindfulness group had increased selective attention which is the ability to focus on the important information of a task and ignore the distracting information. The mindfulness group also took less time to process information. Finally, increased mindfulness skills was associated with the ability to manage more information at the same time in the working memory.

These results show that if you want to improve the quality of your attentional effort and reduce your overall stress at the same time, mindfulness training can help you to do so. To read more about mindfulness: Why Are Meditative Relaxation and Mindfulness Important?

Jensen, C.G., Vangkilde, S., Frokjaer, V. and Hasselbalch, S.G. (2012). Mindfulness Training Affects Attention—Or Is It Attentional Effort? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141, 106-123.



February 13, 2013 Learn about the different causes of meanness from unintentional to malicious to help understand that other people's meanness is usually not related to you.



January 12, 2013 Describes ways to increase the opportunity for happiness in your life.



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