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New study could lead to better treatments for people with anxiety and depression

Attentional training shown to enhance the effect of mindfulness meditation on reducing worry

Researchers from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences have shown that training our brains to improve attentional control (the ability to focus our attention on something and ignore distractions) can help reduce levels of worry, particularly if it is combined with mindfulness mediation practice, which is already commonly used in clinical treatments for people with anxiety and high worry levels. Their findings are published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

Attentional control has previously been linked to levels of worry. It is thought that low levels of attentional control mean people are less able to ignore the stream of negative thoughts and images that characterise worry.

Mindfulness mediation practice has been used for some time by clinicians and has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and improve mental well-being.

In this study, the researchers looked at whether attentional control training on its own, mindfulness meditation practice on its own, or a combination of the two would have the greatest impact on reducing levels of worry.

They worked with a group of 60 individuals who reported high levels of worry, and asked them to fill in a survey about their symptoms before, immediately after and one week after undertaking a seven day training programme of either one treatment, or the two combined. They also used tests which measure how efficiently the brain can block out distractions by tracking eye gaze on a screen to assess the impact of the training on the participants’ attentional control.

Attentional control effect

The results showed that the groups that practiced attentional control training, whether on its own, or in combination with mindfulness mediation, showed a significant improvement in their performance during the screen-based test. The group that practised only mindfulness meditation showed less conclusive improvement effects.

Self reported worry levels

All groups in the study reported decreased levels of worry following the seven day training programme. However, for the group that followed the combined programme of attentional control training and mindfulness mediation practice, the reduction in worry levels was greater, and worry levels continued to decrease at the follow up questionnaire, completed one week after the training finished.

Clinical implications

The findings are important because they show that attentional control can have a positive effect on worry levels, particularly when combined with mindfulness mediation practice. The researchers suggest that the fact that the attentional control training group but not the mindfulness mediation group showed improved attentional control performance, could mean that the attentional control training is helping people to practice mindfulness mediation more efficiently. It may also work to amplify the benefits of other types of clinical treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Professor Naz Derakhshan, lead author of the paper, said: “Attentional control training is a low-cost and easily accessible. Therefore, these findings present an exciting prospect for clinicians working with anxiety disorders. By combining attentional control training with existing clinical treatments, their patients could benefit not only from a greater improvement in symptoms, but also from an ongoing effect after a period of training.”

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