In this series, I dwell on my own experiences of metacogntive therapy from my perspective as a therapist. In this post, I want to show you what role the focus of attention plays when it comes to mental health and the treatment of it.
I am sure that you are already aware of how your focus of attention can change how you are feel and what you think about in different situations. In popular psychology, this idea is sometimes referred to as what you pay attention to will grow.
But what does this actually mean? Let me give you an example of how attention works.
We use our attention for different purposes in life, depending on our task at hand or our goal. Basically, we can pay attention to things going on outside ourselves or things going on inside ourselves.
In metacognitive therapy, we call this the difference between being externally focused or self-focused. We use the Self-Attention Rating Scale to show the difference.
Different kinds of focus have different effects. Right now, you are paying attention to this post, but you could also choose not to – unless I am controlling your attention? Well, I am not controlling your attention, and you may choose to continue reading if you feel like it.
Right now, as I am writing this post, I am paying attention to this post, searching for the right words, putting everything together in meaningful sections, checking if my points are made clear, and so on.
While paying attention to this post, I am more externally focused as I have to bring my focus of attention to the external world in order to write meaningfully.
At times, I might even be entirely externally focused (the -3 point). In case I am entirely externally focused, I forget all about myself and my difficulties, which characterizes the proces of flow, which is related to positive emotions and involvement.
However, I might also in this writing proces begin to worry about the result, which makes me more self-focused, perhaps not entirely self-focused, but closer to that extreme of the scale. If I get too worried, and too self-focused, I will try to refocus.
Refocusing means shifting focus from self-focus to external focus when we become aware of our focus of attention. Perhaps you find yourself getting too self-absorbed when you are nervous? This is kind of normal and shows how easy it is to become too self-focused.
So, instead of paying attention to my worries about the task, I pay attention to the task itself. This is very much the psychological mechanism that underlies performance situations, such as exams. Since attention is a limited resource, meaning that I cannot be fully externally and internally focused at the same time, I have to choose what I pay attention to.
Your Goal Predicts Your Focus
Let me give you an example of how your goal predicts your focus even though you might be unaware of what your goal is in different situations.
If your goal is internal, such as controlling thoughts in a performance situation by replacing nervous thoughts with more calming thoughts, you will consequently pay more attention to those inner experiences. Also, you will keep an eye on them to see if they are still there. If the goal is to get rid of something, then you need to check it, right? This kind of self-focus makes perfectly sense if your goal is to control inner experiences (regardless of how difficult that can be). But, if your goal is external, shifting your focus to the external world will fit better.
We can use a change of focus to distract ourselves from unpleasant internal events. Also in this case, the goal of changing focus is to get rid of thoughts. We don’t need to use our focus with that goal. You can read my other post Get Rid of or Get Good at? about goals to explore this further.
In metacognitive therapy, there is a technique that directly modifies the control of attention called the Attention Training Technique. Evidence shows that the technique is effective for increasing attentional and mental flexibility, and it is often used as a component in treatment. It’s possible to do the training as a homework as well.
As a metacognitive therapist, I help clients use the technique in the most helpful manner. It’s not used as distraction technique (sometimes it’s interpreted in that way, but that’s a misunderstanding). Instead, it’s used to increase meta-awareness and mental flexibility and to decrease the Cognitive Attentional Syndrome over time.
This post is the fifth part of the series “Inside the Mind of a Metacognitive Therapist”. You might want to catch up on the other parts as well. See you around.