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Know Your Prejudices: Cognitive Biases & Why They Matter In Stress Management

The interaction between thoughts and beliefs on the one hand, and feelings and bodily responses on the other, is key in stress management. We need to break the loop by which negative thoughts and difficult feelings feed off each other to create a spiral of stress.

relationship between thoughts and feelings

What is it that kicks off the loop in the first place? In any particular instance of stress, it's hard to know, but one predisposing factor is cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a way in which our thinking or perceiving is systematically distorted. An example is confirmation bias: when we wonder, “Is it true that X”, we tend to take the first thing we come across that confirms our initial opinion, as conclusive proof, and stop questioning right there.

Psychologists have identified lots of cognitive biases, and in this article I'm going to explore some of the most important ones for stress and anxiety. Then I'll take a look at what we can do to make things better.

Why Do We Have Cognitive Biases?

The term sounds somewhat pejorative, but it's important to realise we all have cognitive biases and we need them to make real-world decisions. There are four main reasons:

  1. In real life settings there is a lot of information available to our senses, too much for us to process everything in a reasonable time, so we have to filter it or focus on what's likely to matter most.
  2. At the same time we often lack information we'd like: the world is ambiguous in terms of meaning or significance. For example: you left a message with a friend but they didn't call back. What does it mean? We'd like to know – as humans we like to know what things mean – but we don't know. Cognitive biases help us to come up with judgements in the face of ambiguity, but the problem is we may jump to the wrong conclusions or miss other explanations that would cast things in a very different light.
  3. We need to think and judge and act fast – exploring all information and possibilities is too time consuming especially for relatively trivial questions such as, should I have a coffee now?
  4. We have to decide what to remember. Even if a perception or judgement makes it into conscious awareness, we don't necessarily need to remember it. The brain has to judge what matters enough to store in memory. (This is similar to too much available information, 1 above.)

Key Cognitive Biases That Impact Stress

Again, a lot of biases have been identified, e.g. see this wikipedia page on cognitive biases, some of which are pretty trivial but others have a significant impact on stress and how we handle it. I've drawn out a few of what I consider the most important in this sense.

Impact Bias

Impact bias is the tendency to predict that bad feelings will be more intense and last longer than actually is the case. For example you think that if you mess up the presentation you have to give, you're going to feel awful about it and you'll probably never get over it – you greatly exaggerate the negative impact.

To understand the significance of this you need to appreciate the way the mind works as an experiential simulator (which I wrote about in an earlier article). In summary: for any proposition that comes into your mind, an automatic part of you asks what it would feel like, then creates that feeling in the here-and-now (albeit probably a milder version).

This is very significant to stress because it tends to create more of what I call resistance, which means not wanting to face the feelings, wanting to avoid or suppress them, which generally leads into a negative spiral or worsening stress (what I've called elsewhere the “quicksand trap”). By the same token you'll be less willing to go through it. If you think something is going to be mildly uncomfortable but nothing more, like going to the dentist (for some?) then you can be accepting and not get caught up in mental quicksand.

Attentional Bias

This is the tendency to find what we are looking for, or see what we are primed to see. A trivial example: you buy a new car and you notice all the other cars the same colour and model as yours.

A common pattern in anxiety is hyper-vigilance for danger signs: both triggers in the environment and signs in the body that you are starting to feel anxious. Attentional bias means you're more likely to encounter the danger signs just because you're looking out for them.

Again this relates to the idea of mind as experiential simulator: hyper-vigilance means a part of your brain is wondering what it would feel like if you did get stressed, and then creating the feeling.

Negativity Bias

Negativity bias is the tendency for painful and negative experiences to stand out more. The brain seems to create a more intense emotional response to negative things: the average negative emotion is more intense than the average positive, for example in terms of the body's response. Not only that, but we're more likely to remember negative experiences, or at least painful experiences are more likely to stand out in memory and come to mind more easily – and when they do they recreate some of the same negative feeling.

Positive psychology research suggests we need a “positivity ratio” of about 3 to 1 to really thrive, meaning we need three times more positive experiences – probably to offset the effects of the brain's negativity bias.

Mood congruent memory bias

It's much easier for us to recall times when we were in a similar mood to our current emotional state.

This is very relevant to depression. When we feel low, we can remember all the other times we felt low, but not the times when we felt good. Then it looks like life has always been bleak, and it's an easy step to conclude it always will be.

Confabulation Bias

We have a need for meaning – we want to know why things turned out as they did. And we create stories to fill in the gaps when faced with ambiguity.

The relevance to stress is that we can easily create hurtful stories – e.g. why didn't my friend call me back after I left a message? Maybe I did something to upset them ...

Confirmation bias

As I mentioned earlier, this is the tendency to take the first confirmation of our preconceptions as proof we're right, and to ignore counter-examples.

Relevance to stress: worry is the process of thinking, what if something bad happens, or perhaps, wondering is it happening yet? Then we see the first signs as proof it's going to happen.

For example: what if I have a panic attack at the supermarket? … My heart just skipped a beat – I'm going to have a panic attack...

Loss aversion

It feels worse to lose something we had, than not to gain something we never had.

Relevance to stress: change often means giving something up, to make room for the new. For example, to progress your career and fulfil your potential, you apply for new jobs. But we can end up staying in a job we basically don't like, for fear of giving it up; for fear we might end up in a worse situation.

Illusion of truth

Things are more believable if we've heard them before, or if they are familiar – probably why politicians repeat themselves ad nauseam.

Relevance to stress: this even applies to our own thinking. We assume our thoughts and beliefs must be true because we've thought them a lot of times before – they are familiar. This is how negative beliefs (e.g. I'm stupid, I'm unattractive) get stuck.

Status Quo Bias

We like things to stay the same. We're comfortable with familiarity, and don't like the unfamiliar.

Relevance to stress: even if things are bad, we can be resistant to change because change carries the threat of the unknown, the unfamiliar. Change is stressful and we resist it.

Working With Cognitive Biases

What's the value of learning about these forms of bias? It helps you create some separation from your own thinking patterns. Instead of seeing the world through the distorting lens of the biases without realising, you can see these thinking patterns as just something the mind does. You might still believe your thoughts – or you might not. Or they might have less of a hold on you.

Of course in practice it can only make a difference if you catch yourself in distorted thinking.  That's the hard part. It takes commitment, persistence, and above all, mindfulness.

For more on cognitive biases this web page gives a nice summary.

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