World of Psychology
Quick Relief from Emotional Suffering? This One Simple Thing Could Help
Is it really possible to snap out of your worries in no time?
It seems so, according to a paper recently published in the journal Medical Hypotheses.
The paper is based on two major assumptions. One is that inward cognitive attention is the cause of all emotional suffering. And two is that emotional suffering can be overcome by simple acts of outward cognitive attention.
Evidence suggests that emotional distress — and all major psychiatric disorders — are associated with a state of excessive inward attention. And inward attention that is excessive in its intensity or duration could easily become pathological or troublesome.
In the context of this paper, the term “inward attention” is broadly defined as the state of cognitive attention where attention is directed toward internally generated information such as thoughts and emotions. Brooding, deep contemplation, and engaging in anxious thoughts all are examples of states of inward cognitive attention.
A state of inward attention makes the mind highly receptive to internally generated information and amplifies the subjective experience of thoughts and emotions. Thus, in a state of inward attention, anxious thoughts and emotions imprint deeply on the psyche and this leads to the reinforcement of the maladaptive neural processes in the brain. Hence, the tendency to excessively focus attention inward is the primary factor in the onset and maintenance of emotional distress and psychiatric disorders.
When we experience anxiety and worry, our mind engages in itself intensely. Our mind can also engage in itself when we are low in mood or simply idling away. During these moments of inward attention, our awareness of our surroundings is also reduced. What this means is that the more attentive we are to our thoughts and emotions, the less attentive we become to our surroundings.
Similarly, when we are more attentive to our surroundings, we become less attentive to our thoughts and emotions. What this means is that even a simple act of consciously looking at the surroundings is enough to make us less attentive to our thoughts and emotions. Starved of attention, our intrusive thoughts and emotions will recede and the underlying neural processes will slowly weaken over time.
Hence, emotional well-being can be achieved by training the mind to be less internally directed and more externally directed. A strategy of externally directed visual attention can be used to counteract the tendency of inward attention. Visual stimuli from the external world provide an easy and neutral reference frame to divert attention away from one’s internally generated information.
To implement this strategy, try to consciously “look at the external world” as often as possible. You do not have to go out of your house to do so. The words “external world” in this context simply refer to your field of view (in contrast to the inner world of your thoughts and emotions).
Simply look at anything — a computer screen or a face or anything else that is in your field of view and convenient to you. Doing this does not have to disrupt your other activities. For instance, in a situation where you are speaking to an audience, try to look at the external world consciously as you speak. You do not have to use any special effort or apply concentration while you consciously look at things. Merely looking at the outside world consciously is enough.
Repeat this practice as often as possible, especially during times of anxiety and emotional distress. Persistent practice will train your mind to be more attentive to your surroundings and less attentive to your thoughts and emotions.
Sebastian, R. (2013). “A novel technique of using externally directed visual attention to treat psychological illnesses.” Med Hypotheses, June:80(6):719-21 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23490204