Can you improve depression and anxiety with a few memory and attention tricks?

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It appears that depressed people focus too much on the bad. When trained to shift their attention, they experienced a major improvement:

Selective attention for dysphoric stimuli has been observed in individuals with depression and those at risk for depression. To date, no studies have investigated the effects of directly manipulating selective attention for dysphoric stimuli on depressive symptoms. Mild to moderately depressed college students (N=34) were randomly assigned to complete 4 sessions of either attention training (AT) or no training (NT) during a two-week period. Participants completed self-reported assessments of depressive symptoms at baseline, post-training, and follow-up. Participants in the AT condition had a significantly greater decrease in depressive symptoms from baseline to follow-up than participants in the NT condition. This group difference was mediated by change in attention bias. Our findings suggest that biased attention may have a causal role in the maintenance of depressive symptoms.

Source: “Biased attention and dysphoria: Manipulating selective attention reduces subsequent depressive symptoms” from Cognition & Emotion, Volume 24, Issue 4 June 2010 , pages 719 – 728

The above worked for mild and moderate cases of depression and those are the people for whom antidepressants often don’t work as well.

As for anxiety:

The present study used a directed forgetting paradigm to investigate whether socially anxious individuals show a memory bias for social information. Socially anxious and non-anxious participants viewed three types of words: socially negative, socially positive, and neutral. Each word was presented on a computer screen and was followed by a cue instructing participants to either remember or forget the word. A free recall test and a recognition test were then administered by asking participants to recall and recognize both “to-be-remembered” and “to-be-forgotten” words. When compared to non-anxious participants, socially anxious participants showed a greater directed forgetting effect for socially positive words in the free recall test, indicating that socially anxious individuals more easily forget socially positive words than do non-anxious individuals. This result suggests that socially anxious individuals lack the positive bias (i.e., difficulty in forgetting socially positive information) displayed by non-anxious individuals.

Research highlights

► The present study used a novel paradigm of directed forgetting task to investigate the memory bias in social anxiety.

► The results of the present study imply that socially anxious participants lack the positive memory bias displayed by non-anxious participants.

► The present study failed to find a greater directed forgetting effect for socially negative information in the socially anxious group.

The findings of the present study are consistent with the notion that excessive social anxiety may arise from diminished positive experiences rather than from an increase in negative experiences

Source: “Absence of a positive bias in social anxiety: The application of a directed forgetting paradigm” from Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 42, Issue 2, June 2011, Pages 204-210

And here is the best way to try to shift your attention to the good. (Of course, I’m not a doctor. If you have serious problems, consult a professional.)

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