Our brains are hard-wired to identify and pay attention to threats, whether this be snakes, spiders or angry faces. Lots of researchers think that this is an evolutionary process, designed to help keep us safe. Some people however attend more to these threats than others, and this heightened attention is thought to play a key role in the development and maintenance of a range of anxiety disorders. For example, those with social anxiety have been found to pay more attention to facial expressions than those with low social anxiety, and those with a spider phobia pay more attention to spider relevant cues than those without.
Another fact we know about attention is that when we have a goal in mind, we are more likely to pay attention to things relating to that goal. Imagine going for a walk and trying to spot yellow cars – you are far more likely to notice them if you have this goal when you set out. Our day-to-day lives also suggest to us that when we have these goals, we are more likely not to notice other cues in the environment, and this idea is supported by scientific research. In fact a small amount of research has suggested that attention to a goal can actually override attention to threats. This research has however been carried out in participants without anxiety, and at the moment research in those with anxiety is considerably more limited.
My research project looks at how goal and threat attention interacts in people across a spectrum of anxiety levels, with a main focus on social anxiety. In the session, participants complete a computer based task where they are given a goal image to look out for, then asked to respond as quickly as possible to threatening, neutral and goal-based images on screen. The threatening images used are angry faces, something particularly relevant to those with social anxiety. If reaction times for responding to angry faces are slower with the goal than without, it suggests that the participants are in fact paying less attention to the threat in these conditions. We expect to find that goals reduce the attention paid to threats across all social anxiety levels.
If this is the case, it has exciting implications for the treatment of anxiety disorders. It suggests that it is possible to train the brain to pay attention to cues other than threat relevant ones, and therefore cut the increased attention to threat which plays a role in maintaining high anxiety levels.