How anxiety warps your perception (2023)

In Depth|Psychology

How anxiety warps your perception

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How anxiety warps your perception (1)

By Bobby Azarian29th September 2016

An anxious mindset can change the way you view the world in profound ways. But could a simple new treatment offer a way out of the perpetual fear?


As your thoughts run uncontrollably, your heartbeat starts to race and your breathing becomes heavy. Uneasiness is followed by fear, and then without warning, panic begins to set in. Suddenly you feel overwhelmed and overstimulated. If you periodically experience these symptoms, know that you’re in good company. Actors like Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, musicians such as The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Taylor Swift, artists and writers like Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson, all struggled with crippling bouts of anxiety.

We all know that anxiety affects our emotional state and makes interacting with the world difficult, but what may be less obvious is how it changes what we focus our attention on throughout the day. By biasing attention, anxiety alters what we are conscious of, and in turn, the way we experience reality. This can have profound consequences. Anxiety’s effects on attention may shape worldviews and belief systems in specific and predictable ways. It can even affect our politics without us knowing.

To protect against the reality-distorting effects of anxiety, we must first understand how attention works and the ways in which it can be influenced.

To use the metaphor inspired by the brilliantly forward-thinking 19th Century American psychologist, William James, our visual attention system works a lot like a spotlight that scans the world around us. This ‘attentional spotlight’ represents the finite region of space that is occupied by our focus of attention at any given moment. What falls inside the spotlight is consciously processed while that which is outside is not. By moving our eyes around a visual scene, we can shine our spotlight on any area of the environment we want to inspect in detail. In fact, in-depth processing of an object, a string of text, or a location can’t be carried out unless it is first brought inside the spotlight of attention.

How anxiety warps your perception (2)

Our conscious awareness operates like a spotlight, bringing the details that matter into sharp relief (Credit: iStock)

We can appreciate what this means by considering what our attention is doing when we read a book on a crowded train. Our eyes move across the page from left to right, line-by-line, dragging our attentional spotlight from word to word. While the word we are focusing our attention on is sharp and clear to our perception, words on the page that lie outside our attentional spotlight appear blurry and are largely indecipherable.

We have a localized spotlight of attention because taking in all the visual information from theenvironment at once would overwhelm the brain, which is a system with limited resources, much like a computer. The spotlight allows your mind to focus only on what's important while ignoring the irrelevant. This makes reality comprehensible.

While most of the time we intentionally choose what to focus our spotlight of attention on, it’s not always under voluntary control, and it doesn’t treat everything in the environment equally. Certain things, like a bright flash of light or a sudden large movement in an unexpected area, automatically capture the focus of the spotlight, yanking attention to the location where they appear.

Having your attention immediately snatched from you might seem like an inconvenience, but this process happens for a very good reason. These involuntary attention shifts instantly alert us of something in the environment that may be crucial to survival. To pre-modern humans, an automatic attention shift could have signaled a meaty dinner running by, or if one was less lucky, a threat lurking in the periphery, like a predator or a dangerous enemy.

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How anxiety warps your perception (3)

You can see the power of the attentional spotlight whenever you read a book - a few words pop out while all the rest escape you (Credit: iStock)

Thanks to evolution, our visual attention system automatically responds to a wide variety of forms of threat. Snakes, spiders, angry and fearful faces, threatening postures, and objects shaped like weapons, all have the power to capture our attentional spotlight. We can say that visual attention is “biased” toward threat in the interest of self-preservation.

While this function helps us survive, anxiety causes this quick and simple threat detection system to become hypersensitive, changing the behavior of the attentional spotlight in a way that does harm. Specifically, some control over the spotlight is lost as it becomes too easily grabbed by anything that could potentially be perceived as threatening, whether or not it actually is. And when one is only focused on threat, negative information consumes one’s consciousness. To understand exactly how anxiety can change one’s entire perception of the world just by biasing attention, consider what it is like for a highly anxious person to ride the train in a crowded metropolitan area.

Imagine standing on a busy subway platform, peering into the crowd of people waiting alongside you. Your attentional spotlight is automatically dragged towards the negative facial expressions while the positive ones are ignored. As a result, everyone seems to be a little upset, and suddenly, things just seem gloomier overall. On the train ride home, after all the stops have passed but yours, a large man wearing a hoodie sitting near you abruptly reaches into his jacket pocket, which captures your attention as if he was reaching for a weapon. Luckily it was just a cell phone, but it causes you to think about how you could have not been so lucky. The whole experience strengthens your perception of the subway as a dangerous place full of questionable characters and agitated people.

How anxiety warps your perception (4)

It makes evolutionary sense for us to be primed to notice threats - such as potentially poisonous spiders - within our environment (Credit: iStock)

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Now imagine that this attentional behaviour is going on all the time. As the threat bias filters out the positive and lets in only the negative, worry and fear flow through the cognitive system. The result is an overly threat-conscious appraisal of the environment. Essentially, to the anxious, the world literally looks like a much scarier, unhappier place.

This drastic change in perception can shape our broader worldviews, affecting one’s politics and ideologies.

A2009 study, for instance,showed that anxiety has the power to bias attention in ways that create a perception of people from the Middle East as threatening, which undoubtedly influences political views concerning immigration. In the experiment, researchers had anxious and non-anxious Western participants do a computer task that involved responding to visual stimuli on a screen with keyboard buttons. First, a word was briefly presented, then a display of two faces — one Arab and one White — followed by a target dot that could appear behind either face. The results revealed that those with anxiety were faster to respond to targets occurring behind the Arab face when the word flashed just before was terrorism-related, such as “bomb”. This means that when anxious people were primed to think about terrorism, their visual attention was biased toward Middle Eastern faces, which indicates vigilance for threat.

This finding makes it easy to see why anxious people might gravitate toward politicians who offer protection through things like extreme immigration bans and national security crackdowns. Sure enough, in 2012 a team at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln found that people who pay more attention to aversive images tend to lean to the right politically. In the experiment, researchers showed liberal and conservative participants collages of both positive and negative images on a computer screen while they tracked their attention by recording eye movements.

The results showed that those who tended to look at negative and threatening pictures more quickly and for longer — like those depicting car accidents, dead bodies, and open wounds — were more likely to identify as a conservative. According to the authors of the study, it makes sense that those who are more attuned and attentive to threat would be attracted to right-of-center policy positions, which are often aimed at protecting society from outside threats, through strengthened military and national security, harsher punishment for criminals, and opposition to immigration.

At its worst, anxiety can be a debilitating condition, but new research is showing that we can reverse these biases directly using various types of attention training. Furthermore, this training is now offered through easy-to-use software and even smartphone apps.

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The most popular type of training is known as Attention Bias Modification Training (ABMT), also known more generally as Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM). Although the type of specific task used varies, the general idea is roughly the same. In a typical training session, every few seconds a display featuring both positive and negative images appears on the screen — usually happy and angry faces — which is repeated hundreds of times. Since anxiety is associated with a tendency to focus on negative stimuli, the goal of the task is to locate or respond to the positive images with a button response or a tap on the screen. By doing this over and over, and ideally, over the course of days or weeks, the brain is trained to habitually focus attention away from threat and negative information towards positive information.

How anxiety warps your perception (6)

Will we ever find a way to correct this warped perception of threat and cure anxiety? (Credit: iStock)

Dozens of studies have confirmed the effectiveness of the regimen, and one specific study published in Clinical Psychological Science — a journal of the Association of Psychological Science — found that playing a ‘gamified’ ABMT mobile app significantly reduced threat-bias, subjective anxiety, and observed stress reactivity, all in just a single 25-45 minute session. By delivering the therapy through an engaging mobile game, anxiety sufferers who can’t afford clinical therapy now can get some relief, and on-the-go.

However, ABMT is not without its skeptics. Recent studies have called its effectiveness into question by demonstrating that single sessions of ABMT often work no better than other cognitive-based anxiety treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and in some cases, placebo treatments.

While acknowledging the validity of these criticisms, researcher, professor, and licensed psychologist Per Carlbring of Stockholm University says that we should not abandon attention training altogether, pointing out that a meta-analysis found that attention bias modification was shown to be highly effective for patients under 37, especially when it occurs in a clinic or lab rather than remotely.

Carlbring noticed that ABMT was only ineffective in decreasing anxiety when it failed to reverse threat-related attentional biases. Therefore, it is likely the effectiveness of training could be heavily improved with more dynamic tasks that use highly realistic stimuli. In an effort to greatly increase the robustness of attention training, Carlbring has received a grant for developing and testing a virtual reality form of attention training that is more immersive and natural. "I think that moving the training into a more lifelike environment could be a breakthrough," Carlbring says. "I would not be surprised if attention training is common practice in 2020."

Through exercises that work to dissolve anxiety-driven attentional biases for threat, and by becoming self-aware of the way that anxiety influences our attentional spotlight, we can help prevent it from distorting reality, instilling fear, and altering belief systems.


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Can anxiety distort thoughts? ›

When we are anxious, it is possible that our thoughts are “distorted” in some way. Cognitive distortions are thoughts that are heavily influenced by emotions and may not be consistent with the facts of a situation.

Can anxiety cause depth perception problems? ›

Anxiety can cause blurry vision, tunnel vision, light sensitivity, visual snow, and potentially seeing flashes of light. Each of these has a different cause and may need to be addressed in specific ways to each visual problem. Only a comprehensive, long-term anxiety treatment will prevent future vision problems.

Can anxiety make you feel detached from reality? ›

Health Research Funding reports that stress and anxiety are the primary causes of derealization, and that women are twice as likely to experience it as men. Up to 66 percent of people who experience a trauma will have some form of derealization.

How can fear change a person's perception of reality? ›

Fear can skew our perception of approaching objects, causing us to underestimate the distance of a threatening one, finds a study published in Current Biology. "Our results show that emotion and perception are not fully dissociable in the mind," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco, co-author of the study.

Do people with anxiety think differently? ›

People with anxiety fundamentally perceive the world differently, according to a new study. They aren't simply making the choice to 'play it safe. ' People with anxiety fundamentally perceive the world differently, according to a study reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on March 3.

What does anxiety do to your mind? ›

Summary: Pathological anxiety and chronic stress lead to structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the PFC, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.

What is hyperstimulation anxiety? ›

Hyperstimulation anxiety happens when your stress response is kicked into high gear without being given a chance to come back down. Along with feeling an increased heart rate and other signs commonly associated with stress and anxiety, many people will also feel the effects in their muscles.

Does blurred vision from anxiety go away? ›

Vision symptoms caused by anxiety, such as blurred vision, isn't serious or harmful. It's temporary and usually subsides when we contain anxiety and reduce stress. However, it's best to discuss your symptoms with an eye specialist to ensure there isn't a medical cause.

How do you relax your eyes from anxiety? ›

Rest your cupped hands on the tissues surrounding your eyes and breathe in and out deeply. Meditation during palming will help you relax even further. Palm for five-minute periods throughout your work day. Eye Massage – Similar to palming, eye massaging can relieve eye strain.

What is anxiety dissociation? ›

Dissociation – feeling detached from yourself, like in a dreamlike state, feeling weird or off-kilter, and like everything is surreal – is a common anxiety disorder symptom experienced by many people who are anxious.

What does anxiety feel like mentally? ›

feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax. having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst. feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down. feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you.

How do you snap out of derealization? ›

If you're experiencing derealization try using your senses in any way you can to bring yourself back to reality. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand. Hold something that's cold or really warm (but not hot enough to burn you) and focus on the sensation of temperature. Count or name items in the room.

How does fear distort perception? ›

In addition to its deceptions, fear also manipulates our perception, distorting the objective truth of things. In so doing, it throws fantastic images before our eyes and otherwise twists our understanding of who we are and what the world is all about.

Does anxiety make things seem worse than they are? ›

They can make you feel as though things are worse than they actually are. Everyone's experience of anxiety disorders is different. Not everyone who has an anxiety disorder will experience the same symptoms.

Can anxiety make you question everything? ›

One of the horrible hallmarks of any type of anxiety disorder is the tendency to overthink everything. The anxious brain is hypervigilant, always on the lookout for anything it perceives to be dangerous or worrisome.

What is subconscious anxiety? ›

Or maybe you find yourself restless, tense, and unable to relax more often than not. This “subconscious” anxiety, or anxiety you aren't fully aware of, can still take a toll on mental and physical well-being.

What happens if anxiety goes untreated? ›

For the majority of people with undiagnosed or untreated anxiety disorder, there are many negative consequences, for both the individual and society. These include disability, reduced ability to work leading to loss of productivity, and a high risk of suicide.

What anxiety feels like physically? ›

a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations) muscle aches and tension. trembling or shaking. dry mouth.

What are weird symptoms of anxiety? ›

  • ‍Indigestion. Anxiety can cause temporary or even chronic indigestion. ...
  • Phantom ringing. Tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears, can be a sign of stress or anxiety and can be experienced in several ways. ...
  • Burning sensation. ...
  • Heart irregularities. ...
  • Physical numbness or tingling.
12 Jun 2019

Why is my anxiety so physical? ›

If you have anxiety, your fear and worry trigger the fight-or-flight response, activating your sympathetic nervous system, which controls involuntary breathing and heart rate. This activation leads the body to release stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, contributing to anxiety's physical symptoms.

How do you train your brain to stop the fear? ›

Stay present Notice how your body is responding to the situation or perceived threat you're encountering. Let go of the story Empty the mind of thoughts and judgement. This will break the loop between the mind and body. Focus Is part of your body tight, shaking or painful?

How do you know if you're over stimulated? ›

What does sensory overload feel like?
  1. Restlessness. Restlessness and fidgeting are signs of physical and sensory discomfort. ...
  2. Extreme discomfort. Some people who are overstimulated may experience extreme emotional or even physical discomfort. ...
  3. Panic. ...
  4. Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
28 Dec 2021

Can anxiety make your eyes feel weird? ›

Anxiety, especially severe or chronic anxiety, can affect the eyes. Some people experience eye pain, blurry vision, double vision, and tunnel vision. Changes to the body during the “fight or flight” system are likely to blame. Distractions, exercise, and control over breathing can give your eyes some relief.

Is brain fog a symptom of anxiety? ›

While brain fog is pretty common, it's not a condition on its own. But it can be a symptom of several issues — anxiety and stress among them. If your brain is a computer, ongoing anxiety and stress are those programs that run in the background and use up tons of memory and make everything else run slowly.

Does anxiety affect memory? ›

One part of the body affected by anxiety and stress is the nervous system, which plays a primary role in basic functions like memory and learning. As a result, persistent anxiety and memory loss are associated.

Can anxiety mess with your vision? ›

When we are severely stressed and anxious, high levels of adrenaline in the body can cause pressure on the eyes, resulting in blurred vision. People with long-term anxiety can suffer from eye strain throughout the day on a regular basis. Anxiety causes the body to become highly sensitised to any slight movement.

How long does anxiety usually last? ›

From the time of diagnosis, an anxiety disorder can last from a few months to many years. Most people will have symptoms of an anxiety disorder for a long time before seeking professional help, sometimes up to 15 years³.

How can I reduce anxiety immediately? ›

How to calm down quickly
  1. Breathe. One of the best things you can do when you start to feel that familiar panicky feeling is to breathe. ...
  2. Name what you're feeling. ...
  3. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique. ...
  4. Try the “File It” mind exercise. ...
  5. Run. ...
  6. Think about something funny. ...
  7. Distract yourself. ...
  8. Take a cold shower (or an ice plunge)
22 Jun 2021

What is derealization anxiety? ›

Depersonalization-derealization disorder occurs when you persistently or repeatedly have the feeling that you're observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren't real, or both.

What is cognitive distortions anxiety? ›

Cognitive distortions are negative or irrational patterns of thinking. These negative thought patterns can play a role in diminishing your motivation, lowering your self-esteem, and contributing to problems like anxiety, depression, and substance use.

Can anxiety make you question everything? ›

One of the horrible hallmarks of any type of anxiety disorder is the tendency to overthink everything. The anxious brain is hypervigilant, always on the lookout for anything it perceives to be dangerous or worrisome.

What is an example of cognitive distortion? ›

I feel so foolish when I stutter, therefore I am foolish.” Someone feels that there are rules about how they and others should behave. “I should always be able to talk fluently on the phone and when I read.” Someone describes a mistake or overgeneralizes in an emotional way.

What does anxiety feel like mentally? ›

feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax. having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst. feeling like the world is speeding up or slowing down. feeling like other people can see you're anxious and are looking at you.

What are weird symptoms of anxiety? ›

  • ‍Indigestion. Anxiety can cause temporary or even chronic indigestion. ...
  • Phantom ringing. Tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears, can be a sign of stress or anxiety and can be experienced in several ways. ...
  • Burning sensation. ...
  • Heart irregularities. ...
  • Physical numbness or tingling.
12 Jun 2019

Does anxiety cause second guessing? ›

Here's what to do about it: Practice being more comfortable with uncertainty. Second-guessing yourself is a type of anxiety caused by needing to be 100% sure you've done the right thing. Of course, nothing in life is 100% guaranteed (and even if something is right for a short time, things can change in an instant!)

What is distorted perception? ›

Psychotic disorders or episodes arise when a person experiences a significantly altered or distorted perception of reality. Such distortions are often caused or triggered by hallucinations (false perceptions), delusions (false beliefs) and/or disrupted or disorganised thinking.

How can your thinking trap you? ›

By twisting our thoughts, they can make us easily jump to conclusions and make bad decisions – preventing us from seeing the bigger picture. Like this, we can wind up trapped in a vicious cycle with the potential to alter both our mood and the way in which we experience the world around us.

Can your mind play tricks on you with anxiety? ›

When we are more susceptible to stress, depression, or anxiety, our brains may be playing tricks on us. A cycle of continuing to look for what is wrong makes it easier to find what is wrong out there. It's called a confirmation bias.

Why does anxiety make you doubt yourself? ›

Many anxiety disorder sufferers also deal with persistent self-doubt or judgment. Obsessive mindsets tend to go hand-in-hand with many different anxiety disorders, so it's very common to feel like you don't measure up to your own or to others' expectations and to let that impact you in a severe way.

Is overthinking a cognitive distortion? ›

These types of thoughts fall into the category of overthinking, which can usually be described as negative thinking patterns or cognitive distortions. If any of these patterns describe you, you're not alone. According to Tseng and Poppenk (2020), the average human being has at least 6,200 thoughts daily.

What are examples of irrational thoughts? ›

What Qualifies as Irrational Thoughts?
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others.
  • Persistent thoughts of others falling ill or dying.
  • Unjustified worry of financial hardship.
  • Fear that no one likes you, and that you will always be alone.
2 Sept 2022

Is distorted thinking a mental illness? ›

Distorted thinking is a common symptom of many different mental health disorders, including both generalized and social anxiety and personality disorders. To the person thinking them, these thoughts seem logical and truthful, but in reality they are not.


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