Depression and anxiety are two of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions, affecting thousands of people and impairing quality of life for numerous individuals and their families. There is an abundance of research on depression and anxiety, and there is an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting that negative affect is at the core of both psychological issues. Further research has shown that people who have depression, anxiety, or both have an emotional bias toward threatening and negative stimuli. But until recently, few studies explored the mechanisms that lead to these emotional biases. Katherine A. Oehlberg of the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois sought to address this gap in literature in a new study.
Oehlberg conducted two experiments designed to assess the processes that led to emotional bias in people with negative affect. The participants included individuals with anxiety, depression, or both. In the first experiment, the participants briefly viewed angry faces, while in the second experiment they were presented with images of sad faces for longer periods of time. The results revealed that when angry faces were displayed briefly, there was little difference in emotional bias among any of the participants. In fact, the general trend was an increase in negative affect overall, regardless of whether the participants had anxiety, depression, or both. However, when Oehlberg presented images of sad faces for longer durations, she found a significant difference in emotional bias. In the second experiment, the participants with depression had a bias toward the sad faces, while those with anxiety had an emotional bias that resulted in avoiding the sad faces.
This finding suggests that the processing of emotional stimuli, and specifically the duration of exposure to stimuli, plays a significant role in the unique bias exhibited in anxiety and depression. Although it has been theorized that threat stimuli, the angry faces in this experiment, should lead to increased negative affect in only those with anxiety issues such as phobia, panic, and social anxiety, it was found that shorter exposure to threatening cues affected those with negative affect in general and not just anxiety. These findings are novel, and Oehlberg believes they provide a new look at the processes that contribute to emotional bias. “We hope that these results may underscore the continued importance of studying patterns and mechanisms of cognitive biases within the context of dimensional models of emotional psychopathology,” she added.
Oehlberg, Katherine A., William Revelle, and Susan Mineka. Time-course of attention to negative stimuli: Negative affectivity, anxiety, or dysphoria? Emotion 12.5 (2012): 943-59. Print.
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