New Study Explores Emotional Bias for Anxiety and Depression

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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  • Polly


    November 8th, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    The more that I read on the subject the more I realize that both depression and anxiety can really skew your way of thinking in so many ways.

  • Michael


    November 8th, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    Never easy to come across a threat figure when you are anxious or depressed..I have been in the boat before and it’s not pretty..Even situations that would seem harmless to most people can make you skip a beat and put you into thoughts of being threatened..It takes a lot of practice and work to deal with such encounters and even then there is no real assurance unless you really get out of that abyss.

  • Stax


    November 9th, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    Yeah, If I am already feeling worried and anxious, that kind of mindset does NOT need company!
    I will do anything that I can to avoid others who I think might be feeling that same way.

  • Luceil


    November 9th, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    I guess I am having a hard time figuring out how this will have a larger implication in therapy. While it may be novel, will it be useful? How will knowing how depressed and anxious people will react to pictures of faces help in therapy? I guess all of this is new to me and I dont’ quite understand all of it yet. I am enjoying learning about human psychology though.

  • samual


    November 9th, 2012 at 8:50 AM

    I would have to agree with Stax. Anytime I am worried about something or really feeling down in the dumps, I call a friend and go see a movie. Since I am a stay-at-home dad, I struggle with feeling like I’m not contributing to my family as much as I could which leads to feeling pretty low sometimes. An adult conversation and a social outing often really help me out. If I get together with other stay-at-home parents experiencing the same things, it turns into a gripe fest and I leave feeling worse than when I came.

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