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The Skill-set of Attention, Why It Matters in Stress Management, & How To Train It

The ability to control and direct attention (i.e. focusing, concentrating) is key to a healthy mental life - not just so we can complete our work tasks but also for emotional well-being. William James famously said “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will. No one is compos sui [master of himself] if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

Attention is one of the five core component skills I listed in my Stress Resilience Blueprint. But actually attention is a composite skill-set in itself. In this article I aim to unpack and describe the several aspects of paying attention, to show why they are important for emotional well-being and stress management, and lastly to say something about how professionals might help their clients train their attention faculty.

What Is Attention?

Primarily, the faculty of attention confers the ability to maintain focus or awareness on a single object or topic, stably over a period of time - i.e. not getting distracted. But we can also draw out the following component skills:

  • Selective attention - inhibiting competing demands on our awareness, e.g. listening to one conversation in a crowded room full of noisy people such as a party.
  • Executive control - keeping to your purpose, e.g. you're writing a report and you need to keep to the topic and not wander off into side issues. You keep checking that what you're writing is meeting the needs of the intended audience. For this you need sufficient motivation and energy.
  • Error detection - noticing when you've become distracted, or side-tracked away from your primary purpose.
  • Flexibility - the ability to shift attention appropriately, both in terms of object of focus and style of attention. Firstly, we need to be able to shift from one object to another - when the phone rings, you need to be able to set aside what was occupying your mind and give attention to this person calling you. Secondly we need to be able to shift between styles of attention - more on this below.

What Kind Of Problems Involve Attention?

Clients present to professional coaches and therapists with a range of problems that relate to attention: here are some of them.

  • Extreme emotions get in the way - e.g. falling to pieces in a job interview not being able to think and speak coherently
  • Distracted by emotionally-laden material - e.g. not being able to get on with a work project because your mind keeps going back to a row you had with your partner.
  • Not enough mental energy - clients with fatigue or depression often can't summon the energy needed to follow the plot of a film or a novel or even a conversation when there are distracting influences.
  • Procrastination & daydreaming - lacking "executive attention" - this relates to lack of energy or motivation.
  • Racing thoughts - this can feel like having too much mental energy - e.g. you can't quieten and still the mind when you want to meditate or sleep.
  • Hypervigilence - anxious clients can be always on the look-out for things going wrong to the extent they can't do anything productive or even enjoy themselves.
  • Lack of flexibility - hyper-focus - e.g. an ADHD child so absorbed in a video game that he doesn't hear his mother calling for him. Another form of lack of flexibility is the autistic person who can't tolerate changes of plan or to routine.

These are some of the more obvious cases involving attention, but even "straight-forward" mood issues - depression and anxiety - implicate attention. Whilst it's fairly obvious focus and concentration matter for cognitive performance, it's not so obvious why attention matters for general emotional well-being.

Why Attention Matters For Emotional Well-being

There are a number of parts to my answer to this question.

Being In The Present Moment

Researchers used a phone app to sample people's experience at random points during the day. They interrupted them to ask, first, are you paying attention to what you're doing right now, and second, how happy are you right now? What they found was a clear correlation between being focused (paying attention in the present moment) and well-being.

Why should this be so? When you're not paying attention, or when your mind is wandering, it tends to end up reviewing either past memories or future expectations, in a rather self-referential way. And it seems that emotionally-salient material has a gravitational pull on the mind – not only that, but especially negative emotional material. (It seems the brain has a bias towards the negative – known as the negativity bias.) So you go over bad things that happened, perhaps thinking about what you should have said and done, but reliving the pain. Or, you think about things that might go wrong in the future, and what it'll mean – again creating painful experience that wouldn't be there if you were focused in the here and now.

Attention & Flow

The opposite of this kind of mind wandering is flow, which I described in an earlier article in this series.

A flow state is an experience of effortless absorption in the present moment's activity. Flow is a major component of well-being in the models of Positive Psychology, which I discussed in this article.

Attentional Filter

Another part of the answer to why attention matters for emotional well-being is to do with the way attention operates: like a kind of filter. That is, we see what we are primed to look out for by our current preoccupations – and again, our current preoccupations tend to gravitate towards things coloured with negative emotion. In psychology this is known as attentional bias, and is an example of a cognitive bias, which I talk about in an article coming later in this series.

In stress and anxiety, we're preoccupied with what might go wrong. We look out for signs of things going wrong, and we often find them, especially when it comes to feelings in the body that might portend anxiety. For example, sufferers of panic disorder are hyper-vigilant for signs of panic, such as heart flutters or shortness of breath. Because the mind works as a sort of experiential simulator, this actually makes it more likely.

In depression, people tend to ruminate on bad memories. Bad memories associate to other bad memories – and not good ones. When all you can see of the past is how awful it was, you expect more of the same, and so there arises a pattern of hopelessness.

Attentional Style

Earlier I refered to attentional flexibility, involving the ability to switch between different styles of attention. Time to unpack this idea.

The mind-body connection implies that your style of attention (or how you pay attention as opposed to what you pay attention to) has implications for your biology and brain function.

One way you can pay attention is like a spot-light: your attention is like a narrow beam and the mind sort of grasps hold of whatever it finds in this tight focus. The opposite of this is a broad, open, receptive and even accepting kind of attention.

The former (narrow attention) is associated with stress, and by its nature it brings with it a physiological arousal, a mini “fight-or-flight” response. Narrow attention is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and neither is stress or physiological arousal. It could be associated with positive emotions such as excitement, not just anxiety.

On the other hand, broad, open, receptive attention is calming. In terms of the body, it's likely to involve softer, looser muscles, perhaps especially in the face (think of how you scrunch your face up when you concentrate on a knotty problem). With clients I often introduce broad open attention as a relaxation technique, and it sometimes works where others fail - at least in terms of producing drops in the EMG (muscle tension) measurement.

How To Train Attention

Attention is like a muscle in a sense – it can be trained through repetitive exercise.

One of the best known tools for training attention is mindfulness. Mindfulness can refer to a mindset or attitude, or a formal practice of meditation. In the latter sense, it trains a stable focus, one that doesn't wander off so easily, and perhaps more importantly it trains an open, warm, curious, accepting kind of attention.

There are other tools:

  • Cognitive Bias Modification is a technique developed to counter attentional bias, with research-proven success.
  • BrainHQ is a computer-based form of brain training that focuses on attention but also other cognitive functions such as memory, processing speed and even social skills.
  • Neurofeedback is brain-training that works at the level of the brain rather than cognitive functions. It's a form of biofeedback – it works by measuring brain activity and feeding this information back in real time. There's good evidence neurofeedback can help ADHD.
  • Biofeedback can also help attention, but more indirectly than neurofeedback, in part by supporting mindfulness training.

In my own practice I like to use both biofeedback and neurofeedback as supports for mindfulness meditation training. Biofeedback modalities such as HRV, EMG and capnometry can help set up more conducive physiological conditions, and beyond meditation they help foster the mindset of acceptance. Neurofeedback can more directly train active focus.

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