Avoidance is a behavior that can be seen as both adaptive and maladaptive. In psychological research, people with anxious personalities tend to avoid social situations and use avoidance as a way to circumvent threatening environments. People with depression also engage in avoidance behaviors.
In contradiction to these theories, attentional bias toward certain stimuli is also common in certain psychological conditions. Although avoidance is not always a bad practice, people who avoid emotional stimuli may internalize feelings and increase their risk for further symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Existing research on emotional bias and avoidance focuses mostly on children, adolescents, young adults, and middle-aged adults. But few studies have looked at how emotional avoidance and processing changes with advanced age.
To address this, Ineke Demeyer of the Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology at Ghent University in Belgium recently led a study that compared 25 middle-aged adult emotional bias to attentional and emotional bias in a group of 37 older adults between the ages of 75 and 88. Demeyer also looked at how the presence of depression or anxiety affected attention bias.
The results revealed that the older participants engaged in avoidant behaviors to all of the stimuli, regardless of whether the cues were neutral, sad, or happy. The middle-aged participants did not demonstrate any attentional bias. When Demeyer looked further, it was revealed that the older adults showed avoidant behavior toward the sad and happy cues more than the neutral ones. Demeyer added, “When taking a closer look into the role of mood and affective symptoms, we found that older adults who experienced more anxiety symptoms showed more avoidance of negative stimuli.”
Demeyer believes that these findings can be interpreted in several ways. First, older individuals may have higher levels of emotional regulation, which causes them to temper their emotional responses more than younger adults. Second, because older individuals are aware of their limited life span, they may choose to avoid any negative stimuli in particular, as they would rather only expend energy on positive things. Finally, their limited energy resources may cause them to have a blunted emotional response to all stimuli in general.
In conclusion, these findings show that there are differences in how older and middle-aged adults respond to emotional stimuli. Future work should explore these variances and their overall impact on well-being in more depth.
Demeyer, I., De Raedt, R. (2013). Attentional bias for emotional information in older adults: The role of emotion and future time perspective. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065429
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