Unleashing the Power of Cognitive Bias: The Key to Managing Anxiety and Boosting Mental Health

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Unleashing the Power of Cognitive Bias: The Key to Managing Anxiety and Boosting Mental Health

Published by Zena Hodgson in Self-awareness · 21 December 2023
Tags: Anxietysleepbetter
Cognitive biases are inherent mental shortcuts that influence our thinking and decision-making processes. While these shortcuts can be helpful in some situations, they can also lead to distorted thinking patterns and inaccurate perceptions of reality, which can negatively impact mental health.

By understanding cognitive bias, we can gain awareness of our thinking patterns and learn to recognise when these biases are at play. This self-awareness can help reduce anxiety and improve mental well-being by allowing us to challenge and correct our biases.

Negative cognitive biases can act like systematic errors in thinking that can affect our judgements, decisions, and behaviours. These biases occur due to various factors such as our past experiences, beliefs, emotions, social influences, and knowledge. We all have negative cognitive biases; they form part of normal human behaviours, but they can also have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being.

There are many different types of cognitive biases, but they can generally be grouped into a few categories. The four outlined below also include an illustration of how sometimes these biases can work against us:
  1. Attentional biases: These biases refer to our tendency to focus on certain aspects of a situation while ignoring others. For example, we may pay more attention to negative or threatening stimuli in our environment, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety or hypervigilance.
  2. Memory biases: These biases refer to our tendency to remember certain information more than others. For example, we may remember negative events more vividly than positive ones, which can contribute to feelings of sadness or trauma .
  3. Interpretive biases: These biases refer to our tendency to interpret information in a certain way. For example, we may interpret ambiguous situations as being more negative than they actually are, which can contribute to feelings of anxiety or depression .
  4. Decision-making biases: These biases refer to our tendency to make judgements or decisions in a certain way. For example, we may make decisions based on our emotions rather than objective information, which can lead to poor outcomes.

Cognitive biases can have a significant impact on our mental health, leading to negative emotions, maladaptive behaviours, and distorted perceptions of reality.

So why do we do it to ourselves?
To understand why we can sometimes find ourselves falling down this vortex of worry , we have to look back at our ancestors. Life was hard for our ancestors and most of their decisions were based on how best to survive; how not to get eaten by creatures with big teeth, how not to get set upon by neighbouring tribes, how not to freeze to death and how not to starve. These are all quite negative, but if you think about it, they have to be to ensure our survival. If our ancestors were blasé about it all, we probably wouldn’t be here. And those humans who were good at thinking this way, were the ones who survived and passed this on to successive generations; reinforcing these biases towards the negative down through the ages.

Since those early days we have developed our more sophisticated intellectual part of our brains, the conscious part, the bit that interacts with the world, our sense of identity. But our more primitive part still exists and still holds a primary function of keeping us alive and well. But how this primitive part of the brain makes decisions is at times questionable. It is not an intellect, it is too primitive to make proper assessments of situations and it is not a modern innovator, it relies on negative parameters of depression, anger, and anxiety. It refers to a set of templates from past behaviours that resulted in us not dying.

Are these always the best solutions, no of course not, but they are if we are in immediate danger. Immediate danger, requires an immediate response and that’s when our primitive mind jumps in to save us with our honed fight and flight response, without our slower intellectual selves getting in the way. So, I’m glad that part of my brain still exists. But in more ordinary daily situations, where we may simply be out of our comfort zone or in a new unfamiliar situation or have a challenging situation to deal with, the best course of action probably isn’t to run away, get angry, fight, or hide. However, if our primitive brain ‘thinks’ that we might be in danger it steps into help and signals our internal pharmacy to drive us to behave in this way.

The more we allow our primitive mind to be in control, the more time we are going to spend experiencing negative emotions and feelings of anxiety. And the more time we spend feeling anxious, the more we are reinforcing the hypervigilance that keeps us looking out for the dangers. This feeds into our attentional bias of being more aware of the negatives, the perceived threats, which can affect decision-making, behaviours, and so on.

No wonder we can suffer from poor sleep with all that whirling around inside our brain.

So how do we get out of this negative loop?
The good news is, if we can spend more time experiencing life with our intellectual mind in charge, then we can feel more relaxed and positive. Just absorbing some of the information is this article using your intelligent brain, is allowing you to gain a better understanding about how your brain works, which in turn can allow you to make a proper assessment and start thinking about what small changes you can make towards more positive thinking and actions. By shifting your focus onto noticing more positive aspects of your life and the small things around you that make you smile, you can start shifting this primitive brain dominance and lessening the anxiety.

Addressing these biases and shifting focus requires practice. I might work with my clients to help them identify and challenge their biased thinking patterns, so that they can learn to remain clearer in their thinking and perhaps adapt behaviours. When we do something new, have a positive outcome and repeat the process, so we are laying down new habits; we are creating a positive feedback loop with new more helpful templates to refer to in our minds.

We can also start to help ourselves in easy to achieve small ways. Do not underestimate the power of simply getting better at noticing when things are going well. The little wins do add up. For example; the rain stopped just as you needed to get out of the car to go into the supermarket; you were lucky enough to pick up the last packet of your favourite biscuits and triple bonus the checkout you chose to pay at moved along quicker than the one next to it!

Small wins make us smile and smiling boosts our serotonin and positive feelings, and so now we are beginning to switch the direction of the vortex, moving up into a more positive, calmer state of being.

Make room for a little more of the things you enjoy doing, do things that help you to relax and feel calm. Giving more weight and energy to those positive thoughts, feelings and behaviours will shift those biases into a more positive direction. Doing so will reinforce your greater sense of well-being, happiness, and calm confidence.

You’ll probably find you sleep better too – and that’s a big win!

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