Every so often we all give a little time over to the way we feel. Sometimes it’s an awareness of the way we are thinking and perhaps a flash of insight into our emotional state. Then there are the physical things like our heartbeat or breathing, various aches and pains and so on. It’s a perfectly normal process but if self-attention becomes excessive then the problems start.
Excessive self-focused attention is considered by many experts to be the core of a number of anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, OCD, social and sexual anxiety. If we take panic disorder as an example, excessive self-focusing on the heart can very quickly become an intense and even painful experience. But the same also seems true of images and memories. It has been argued that people with obsessional thinking suffer from serious misinterpretations of intrusive thoughts and that the associated hypervigilance over the acceptability or otherwise of thoughts is the root of the problem.
There exists something of a problem in defining the boundary between normal and excessive self-focus, even so we know from self-reports that such processes tend to mark out not only anxiety sufferers but depression sufferers too. So while the observation and measurement of self-focused attention presents a challenge, there is ample evidence that it exists.Various approaches and observations have been made. For example, the influence of happy or sad moods on self-focus has tended to yield inconsistent results. In part this may be a problem in attempts to measure the nature of moods but it also points to problems in measuring the fluctuating nature of self-monitoring and changes in intensity.
When it comes to methods of calming or reducing excessive self-monitoring there are some options. It seems clear that alcohol has an effect of inhibiting self-focus which may help to explain why some people self-medicate with alcohol as a way of reducing anxiety. From a therapeutic perspective the problems with alcohol use are self-evident and therefore more adaptive mechanisms are needed.
There may be hope in the application of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about accepting things as they are, being observant and fully in the moment and being impartial to any thoughts or emotions that come your way. This is an approach that doesn’t set out to try and fix or change anything. It is really about clarity and a way of standing back from ourselves so that we can begin to absorb our surroundings and see patterns of thought and even notice how certain thought streams are tying us up in knots.
Green, J.D. (et al) Happy mood decreases self-focused attention
British Journal of Social Psychology (2003), 42, 147-157