Head feels weird anxiety

Can Anxiety Cause Headaches or a Heavy Head Feeling?

A heavy or uncomfortable feeling in your head can make getting through your day particularly difficult. For example, you may feel like you cannot hold your head up (heavy head) or have a tight band tied around your head. Doctors often associate a heavy head with tiredness, headaches, brain fog, dizziness, neck pain, and pressure in the head and face.

When your head feels heavy, it could be a symptom of several different conditions, so pinpointing the cause is challenging. You will need to assess all your symptoms and recent life events to determine the causes of your uncomfortable feeling in your head. Anxiety is, however, almost always a leading cause of heavy head and tension headaches.

A heavy head is not always a severe condition. However, it could have several causes, ranging from mild headaches and sinus infections to severe concussions and brain tumors.


How Anxiety Affects the Head

Anxiety refers to feeling fearful, worried, or nervous before, during, and after a stressful event. An anxiety attack could lead to pressure and heaviness in your head, along with a racing heart, trouble concentrating, and sweating.

For most people, anxiety comes and goes. However, for others, anxiety can linger and worsen over time. When it persists and interferes with your daily life, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. Examples of anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Anxiety disorders occur due to a mix of genetics and your situational environment, including your upbringing and lifestyle choices. They can sometimes occur with depression and other mental diseases, compounding the symptoms.

Recommended Reading What Is The Difference Between Anxiety & Depression?

Anxiety causes a heavy head feeling because of tension headaches common in people living with the disorder. Most people describe these headaches as feeling like a tight band wrapped around their heads. A tightening of the scalp and neck muscles also causes an anxiety headache.

Why Anxiety Affects the Head

Scientists have linked anxiety to chemical imbalances in your brain and body. [1] They have found several connections between anxiety and strange physical, emotional, and cognitive sensations that primarily affect the head. Below are some common ways anxiety can affect you:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Rumination
  • Constant worry
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Racing thoughts

Researchers agree that people with anxiety find it challenging to control their worrying thoughts, which triggers tension headaches and migraines. [2][3]


Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Specific physical symptoms associated with anxiety can cause a strange feeling in the head. Anxiety symptoms can affect the body’s circulatory system. For example, heart palpitations or temporary blood pressure spikes can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating on the face
  • A choking sensation

Other common anxiety symptoms are:

  • Anxiety heavy head
  • Anxiety headache
  • Fatigue
  • Derealization and depersonalization
  • Dissociation and disconnection from reality
  • Insomnia
  • Racing thoughts
  • Rumination and obsessive thoughts
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Pressure in the ear or head
  • Brain fog
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in the head

Let’s take a deeper look at anxiety headaches and their effects.




Tension or anxiety headaches are common physical symptoms of anxiety. When you are stressed out, you could have a tension headache. Experiencing frequent and severe headaches could also worsen your anxiety symptoms. The American Migraine Foundation determines that nearly half of Americans living with migraines also suffer from anxiety. [4]

It is not surprising to experience a heavy head because of your body’s physical stress during extreme and continuous stress levels. However, if this is something you regularly face, to the point where it severely interferes with your daily life, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. In this case, it is best to consult a medical professional.

Symptoms of Anxiety Headaches

People living with an anxiety disorder can experience migraines or chronic tension headaches. Different types of headaches have various symptoms as follows:

1. Tension Headaches

These headaches commonly develop with anxiety and stress, but they can have other triggers. They generally improve quickly but could persist for several hours or days. Though these headaches may not be severe enough to affect your daily life, they could still negatively impact your quality of life. Symptoms include:

      • Mild to moderate aching or dull pain
      • Pressure behind your eyes
      • Tightness in your shoulder and neck muscles
      • Pressure that feels like a band tightening around your head
      • Scalp tenderness

2. Migraine Headaches

Anxiety can also cause migraines. It can be challenging to determine one from the other when you get both migraines and tension headaches. Symptoms include:

      • Throbbing or pulsating pain in your head
      • Pain one side or part of your head or face
      • Tingling on one side of your face, arm, or leg
      • Nausea and vomiting
      • Seeing spots of flashing light
      • Feeling lightheaded
      • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and strong odors
      • Fainting
      • Blurry vision

Migraines can last for days without treatment and become so severe that they prevent you from performing your daily activities. In addition, movement and physical exercise often make you feel worse.

What Causes an Anxiety Headache?

There is no definitive cause of tension headaches and migraines, although there are some common triggers, including:

  • Stress: Research reveals stress is a common trigger. Headaches due to anxiety can occur as a physical response to emotional distress.
  • Lack of Sleep: People with anxiety issues have difficulty sleeping, triggering migraine attacks.
  • Sensitivity to Pain: Researchers discovered people who regularly get headaches are more sensitive to pain. Increased sensitivity can cause muscle tenderness.
  • Muscle Tension: Muscle tension is a crucial aspect of anxiety and stress. Whenever you feel anxious, your body responds by preparing to deal with the cause of your worry. In addition, long-term anxiety makes your body remain ever alert. Consequently, this causes tension in your muscles instead of relaxing once the threat subsides.
  • Change in Serotonin Levels: The serotonin chemical in the brain plays several essential roles in your body, such as stabilizing your mood and feelings of happiness and well-being. It also helps with eating, digestion, and sleeping. Conversely, too much or too little serotonin levels in your brain affect your mental and physical health. For example, a sudden decrease results in headaches due to the constricted blood vessels and release of neuropeptides.

How to Prevent an Anxiety Heavy Head and Headache

While you may not entirely prevent headaches from occurring, you can take some steps to help decrease their frequency and severity. These include:

  • Recognize Your Triggers: When you get migraines, try and identify what triggers them, including stress, caffeine, alcohol, hormonal changes, insufficient or low-quality sleep, and dehydration.
  • Practice Relaxation: Take time off your daily schedule to relax to reduce anxiety symptoms. Some physical exercises (like yoga, deep breathing techniques, and tai chi) can help you relax, especially when you rest and sleep enough. Additionally, you can practice mindfulness exercises such as meditation, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation therapy.
  • Practice Self-Care: Anxiety affects your sleep, appetite, and overall health. Therefore, practicing self-care helps reduce many anxiety symptoms, including headaches. For example, get seven to nine hours of restful sleep daily, do regular physical activity, drink enough water, and avoid skipping meals.

How to Treat Anxiety Headaches

Anxiety headaches have various treatment options, depending on the type and severity. Some focus on treating the underlying causes of stress and anxiety, while others concentrate on pain relief.

1. Pain Relieving Medication

You can treat occasional tension headaches using prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relief medications. Common OTC medication includes ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve). Additionally, Triptans prescription drugs treat both tension headaches and migraines by increasing serotonin levels in your brain to reduce inflammation and constricting blood vessels.

However, pain-relieving medicines can result in overuse and taking higher doses than recommended, which causes severe side effects.

2. Anti-Anxiety Medication

If OTC and prescription medications don’t treat your headaches, talk to your doctor about different treatment approaches such as anti-anxiety medication (muscle relaxers) to decrease the frequency and severity of persistent headaches.

3. Alternative Remedies

You can try alternative remedies such as:

      • Cold compress to soothe the painful spot and resting in a dark room.
      • Acupuncture addresses your body’s energy imbalances and blockages that cause pain and distress.
      • Biofeedback uses electrodes on your skin to help you learn to recognize when you get stressed so you can control your response and relax areas of tension.

4. Talk Therapy

A long-term treatment approach for tension headaches is getting help for your anxiety. Anxiety therapy improves your mental health symptoms and reduces your physical ones. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treats anxiety by helping you identify and challenge distressing and negative thought patterns.


How to Tell If Anxiety is Causing Your Headaches

Many things can cause headaches and migraines, so you need to identify whether your headaches are due to anxiety or something else. Knowing the cause helps you treat it correctly. Anxiety can cause a weird feeling in your head. You might have anxiety if you experience strange sensations accompanied by:

  • Hot flashes
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy and quick breathing rate
  • Blushing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Hair loss


How to Relieve Pressure in Your Head

Relieving pressure in your head also reduces your chances of getting tension headaches. Luckily, you have several options available to reduce or clear it. These include:

  • Drinking enough water. Dehydration increases anxiety and its resultant physical and mental symptoms. Consuming the recommended amount of water per your daily activity and demographics helps prevent dehydration.
  • Stretching regularly to relax your muscles, especially in your neck, helps relieve tension in your body.
  • Incorporate breathing exercises to help calm your body.
  • Do physical exercise to release hormones and neurotransmitters to calm your mind and muscles.
  • Decrease the time you spend around bright lights and loud noises to alleviate the pressure on your head.


Long Term Treatment

Medication should be a last resort when dealing with head pressure and tension headaches. Head pressure and anxiety are merely symptoms of stress and anxiety. While it is okay to relieve migraines using a medication, your treatment options should also tackle the underlying issues of your physical symptoms. Besides, some medications can exacerbate your condition instead of relieving it.

The best way to start relieving your anxiety-heavy head is by reducing your stress. If the pain is physical around your head and neck, look for ways to effectively relieve it, such as massage or acupuncture.

Next, look into areas of your daily life that cause your anxiety – for example, examine your relationships, work environment, or home environment. Finally, find out how to make changes to reduce your stress and anxiety.

Most people experience stress and anxiety occasionally, but you need to manage and treat it if it takes over your life. If the changes you need are complex, seek help from family, friends, and professionals.

Additionally, always be in the moment and focus on what you can handle and control. For example, enjoy time with your family and avoid your mind wandering off and worrying about overdue bills. If you have multiple unpleasant thoughts constantly running through your mind, you risk raising your stress and anxiety levels or getting physical symptoms like headaches.



Professional Help

If you suspect you suffer from one or more anxiety disorders, seek professional help. Anxiety can slowly creep into your life and take it over if you fail to identify and remedy it immediately. Thus, schedule a mental healthcare appointment for that weird feeling in your head. Anxiety does not go away on its own. Instead, it can fester and grow into physical symptoms, like migraines.

Seek medical help if you have recurring headaches or migraines, muscle tension, heavy head, and feel occasional pressure in your head. Treating an anxiety headache with medication relieves the symptoms, but leaves the problem intact.

The bottom line is that anxiety and stress are ordinary human experiences. However, recurring anxiety with frequent emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms indicates a problem. Fortunately, anxiety is a treatable condition that requires support and takes time, effort, and goodwill to overcome.

The Center • A Place of HOPE is a top treatment facility for depression, anxiety treatment, trauma, addiction, eating disorders, abusive relationships, and more. Contact us today.

View our Client Reviews to get a better understanding of how we have helped people improve their lives.

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[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26317601/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4117064/
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5360747/
[4] https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/anxiety-and-depression/

Is A Weird Feeling in the Head Anxiety? Causes and Treatments

Is A Weird Feeling in the Head Anxiety? Causes and Treatments
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Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH — By Erica Cirino on May 3, 2021

The symptoms of many mental health disorders show up cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Anxiety is no exception. This common mental health condition is linked to various symptoms that can span the entire body, such as:

  • heart palpitations
  • weakness
  • insomnia
  • stomach issues
  • fatigue

Commonly, people with anxiety experience a range of symptoms affecting how they feel “in their head.” These can include:

  • brain fog
  • pressure
  • headaches
  • dissociation — the sensation of feeling disconnected from yourself and the outer world

If you or a loved one has been experiencing these or other “weird” feelings in your head, it’s possible that anxiety might be the cause.

While occasional anxiety is a part of everyone’s life, when fear or worry begin to adversely affect a person’s life, it can turn into an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders include:

  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD
  • panic disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD
  • social anxiety disorder

These all appear to be influenced by a mix of genetics and a person’s situational environment, including their lifestyle choices and upbringing. These disorders sometimes co-occur with depression or other mental health disorders, compounding the symptoms.

Why does it affect the head?

Anxiety has also been linked to chemical imbalances in the brain and body.

Scientists have found connections between anxiety and some strange physical, cognitive, and emotional sensations that seem to mainly affect the head. Here are a few common ways that anxiety can affect your head:

  • negative self-talk
  • constant worry
  • racing thoughts
  • rumination
  • obsessive thoughts

While experts agree more research is needed to understand exactly how anxiety is linked to weird feelings in the head, they have also uncovered a link between anxiety and migraine headaches.

Researchers point out that people with anxiety tend to have issues with controlling worried thoughts, which seems to trigger migraines and other kinds of headaches.

Certain physical symptoms associated with anxiety can cause weird feelings in the head as well. Symptoms that affect the body’s circulatory system, like heart palpitations and temporary spikes in blood pressure, can cause feelings in the head like:

  • dizziness
  • a choking sensation
  • sweating on the face
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting

Other common anxiety symptoms include:

  • headache, including migraine headaches
  • dissociation and a lack of connection with reality
  • derealization and depersonalization
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • brain fog, or an inability to think clearly
  • racing thoughts
  • rumination and obsessive thoughts (especially with OCD-type anxiety)
  • pressure in the ears or head
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • pain in the head
  • numbness or tingling in the head

There are various types of anxiety disorders, each with associated symptoms. Any of these anxiety disorders may cause a weird feeling in your head.

You might have anxiety if those strange sensations are accompanied by:

  • excessive sweating
  • heavy and quick breathing rate
  • hot flashes
  • blushing
  • dry mouth
  • shaking
  • hair loss
  • fast heartbeat

Eliminating the underlying cause of the weird feelings in your head requires treating the underlying issue.

These sensations and other symptoms of anxiety can also be symptoms for other types of mental disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Determining the underlying cause will help you seek appropriate treatment.

If anxiety is the cause, just know that recovery is possible, and treatment and support are fairly widespread and available for many people.

An example treatment plan includes regular talk therapy, and sometimes antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. Anxiety can also be managed with:

  • yoga
  • meditation
  • therapy animals
  • art therapies like music and drawing
  • exercise

Medical cannabis is a treatment that may work well for some people, but in others could make anxiety worse, depending on the strain ingested. More research is needed to determine how successful it is at treating anxiety.

If you suspect you might have an anxiety disorder, or if the weird feelings in your head don’t go away in time, schedule an appointment with a mental healthcare professional right away. The same is true if the feelings in your head are so severe they interfere with your everyday life.

You should also schedule a physical exam with a medical professional for any onset of physical symptoms, even if you suspect they are a result of a mental health condition.

Anxiety is a common human experience. However, some people experience the emotional, physical, and cognitive symptoms of anxiety on a more frequent and intense basis than others. Those who do are said to have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is known to manifest in various ways throughout the body, including in the head. Anxiety is a highly treatable condition, and in time and with effort, symptoms will become manageable.

Last medically reviewed on May 3, 2021

How we reviewed this article:

Healthline has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.

  • Aleman A, and Kahn RS. (2005.) Strange feelings: do amygdala abnormalities dysregulate the emotional brain in schizophrenia?
  • Anxiety disorders. (n.d.). 
  • Anxiety disorders. (n.d.). 
  • Chand SP, and Marwaha R. (2020.) Anxiety.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder. (2019).
  • Gül AI, et al. (2015.) Coexistence of anxiety sensitivity and psychiatric comorbidities in patients with chronic tinnitus.
  • Maheshwari PK, and Pandey A. (2012.) Unusual headaches.
  • Marie J. (2018.) The scariest panic symptoms people don't talk about.
  • Peres MFP, et al. (2017.) Anxiety and depression symptoms and migraine: A symptom-based approach research.
  • Thorton P. (2018.) OCD: Physical sensations and urges.
  • What are the five major types of anxiety disorders? (n.d.).
  • Zarrindast M and Khakpai F. (2015). The modulatory role of dopamine in anxiety-like behavior.

Our experts continually monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

May 3, 2021

Written By

Erica Cirino

Edited By

Allison Tsai

Medically Reviewed By

Nicole Washington, DO, MPH

Copy Edited By

Megan McMorris

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Medically reviewed by Nicole Washington, DO, MPH — By Erica Cirino on May 3, 2021

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Vegetative dystonia, how to help yourself.

You have been examined, everything is in order in your body, but you don't feel that way. Going to bed in the evening, the heart starts beating like crazy again, the hands become cold and wet, the head is spinning. In public, you suddenly start to sweat, you don’t have enough air, you can’t breathe. Before the meeting, your stomach suddenly starts to swell, you have to run to the toilet several times. The family doctor says something about vegetative dystonia. What's going on with you? Vegetative dystonia is not a disease. This term refers to a collection of unpleasant physical symptoms caused by emotional disturbances. However, people suffering from symptoms are not easily helped. Why this happens, explains Dr. med. Arturs Utinans , psychiatrist, psychotherapist.

How does autonomic dystonia manifest itself?

In various life situations we react by feeling and showing emotions. However, some people, both due to physiological (physical trauma, alcohol-induced changes in the brain, etc.) and emotional disorders (due to severe emotional trauma or, more often, due to errors in emotional education), fail to recognize their fear. , anger, disappointment, etc.

Infants who do not yet recognize emotions always react emotionally with bodily manifestations. Even at an early age, parents need to teach the child how to name emotions, what he feels - that is, when the child is frightened - this is fear, when angry - anger, etc. This emotional upbringing, which begins in infancy, continues throughout childhood. If, for example, a child has a teacher who uses emotional abuse, frightening the child so that he peed, parents need to explain to the child what happened in his emotional world and in the body, why the reaction was so violent. And after that, of course, talk at school.

An adult who, for some reason, could not successfully pass such a school of emotions, does not recognize them or cannot find the cause of anxiety in moments of intense anxiety due to fear or other emotions, but notices some bodily reactions that are typical for moments strong excitement:

  • increased heart rate, pulse;
  • discomfort in left side;
  • starts sweating, chills;
  • shortness of breath or rapid breathing;
  • begins to bloat, abdominal pain, cramps, nausea, immediate and frequent need to go to the toilet;
  • interfere with dizziness, instability, severe weakness or pre-syncope;
  • there are strange sensations in the arms and legs - they become cold, damp, numb, tingling;
  • Hot flashes, cold flashes, etc. begin.

Since many physical illnesses have such symptoms, it is right to contact your family doctor first. VD can only be thought of after an organic disease or disorder has been ruled out.

What else is evidence of ID?

If the doctor is knowledgeable, it is usually possible to understand during the visit whether disturbing physical symptoms appear in certain situations. This also points to VD. We are so arranged that in the event of an imaginary danger, the body reacts in the same way as in a situation where, for example, a rabid dog runs towards a person. You can try to imagine what it would feel like in this case, and understand that this is exactly how people feel, on whom no one rushes, but who, for unclear reasons, experience strong fear. At the prompting of a doctor, a person may remember that he feels the same way when he is left alone at home, or vice versa, falling into a crowd of people, etc. Of course, situations when unconscious anxiety covers can be very different.

Unpleasant and frightening physical symptoms can be even more disturbing. Everyone has moments when the heart jumps out of the chest, but unless a person lives in extreme conditions, such a strong excitement should not be frequent.

If this happens frequently, someone goes to the doctor complaining that they feel excessive anxiety too often, while another talks not about anxiety or fear, but about a rapid heartbeat or a feeling of discomfort in the abdomen. Typically, such people are unwilling to admit that after ruling out possible diseases with similar symptoms, the emotional disturbance needs to be treated. Such people often like various complex explanations that, in other words, say the same thing. But it sounds impressive. For example, there is an imbalance in my vegetative system, so... Some people with a tendency to hypochondria want to continue looking for some kind of mystical illness, and not admit an emotional disturbance. And this is precisely the reason why it is not easy for even the best family doctor to help such patients.

Some people find it helpful to understand how the brain works. The gray matter of the brain or neurons are located not only in the part of the brain that is responsible for perception, but also in the brain centers that regulate the action of internal organs (the autonomic nervous system). Therefore, when the brain perceives information about any feelings, certain changes occur in the internal organs. If someone screams, you can be so frightened that you immediately need to run to the toilet. If it is clear to oneself that this happened due to fear, the person calms down and lives on calmly. But if he is not aware that he feels fear, going to the toilet, which is repeated in similar situations, worries him even more. There is a growing gap between thoughts and reactions that cannot be linked together. So the anxiety is growing.

How to treat something that is not a disease?

If there is a desire and motivation to get to know yourself and to ensure that interfering symptoms disappear or do not appear so often, do not turn into panic attacks when the fear of death appears (because the sense of reality disappears), psychotherapy is the best treatment. Research shows that cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT) and psychodynamic psychotherapy are most effective. However, in order for a person to start working on himself, to learn to recognize and manage his emotions in adulthood, he first needs to honestly admit to himself that ID is an emotional disorder.


If a person is not ready for psychotherapy, which is not suitable for everyone, it is necessary to try to help yourself in a different way. One of the solutions is to learn how to calm yourself in moments when, for inexplicable reasons, violent reactions of the body appear again. In order to learn the methods of self-soothing, of course, it is first necessary to recognize that the physical symptoms are caused by anxiety. A common self-help technique is deep diaphragmatic breathing.

In addition, you can use anything that helps - warm tea or a natural soothing preparation, running water, a warm bath, a walk in the fresh air, etc. Once you learn to soothe yourself, you will always have rescue belt , which will help the next time an alarm occurs. It's more than nothing. Everyone has their own threshold of ability, how much they manage to help themselves in a healthy way. However, such self-help measures will not help to change the structure of a personality with a tendency to excessive anxiety, fears, and panic. Therefore, it should be reckoned with the fact that attacks of VD will not disappear. However, general recommendations, which means getting enough sleep regularly, being physically active, trying not to overload yourself, will help to maintain peace in general.

Photo: Shutterstock

How anxiety distorts reality

  • Bobby Azarian
  • BBC Future

Image copyright Thinkstock

Anxiety tendencies can have a profound effect on how we perceive the world. BBC Future 's columnist wondered if a new treatment could help relieve constant anxiety.

You have a variety of disturbing thoughts rushing through your head, your pulse quickens and your breathing gets out of hand. Anxiety gives way to fear, and then you suddenly panic.

You feel confused and overexcited. If these symptoms are familiar to you, then know that you are not alone.

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Actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, musician Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and singer Taylor Swift, artist Vincent van Gogh and poet Emily Dickinson suffered from paralyzing anxiety attacks.

Everyone knows that anxiety affects the emotional state of a person and prevents him from interacting with the outside world.

However, few people are aware of the impact that anxiety has on our attention in everyday life. Because of it, the priorities of attention are shifted, which entails a change in the information entering the brain and, consequently, our perception of reality.

This can have far-reaching consequences. By influencing attention, anxiety can shape a person's worldview and value system in a certain and predictable way. It can also affect our beliefs without our knowledge.

To avoid the distortion of reality caused by anxiety, you first need to understand the mechanisms that regulate attention and how to control them.

According to a metaphor inspired by the work of a talented and progressive American psychologist 19century William James, our visual attention system is much like a searchlight "scanning" the world around us.

This "spotlight of attention" is a limited area of ​​space that is the focus of attention at a certain moment. What gets into it, the brain consciously processes, but what remains outside it does not.

Looking at the world around, a person focuses his attention on the subject that he would like to examine better. Our brain is not able to process in detail an object, text or environment if they are not in the center of attention.

Image copyright, iStock

Image caption,

Our mind works like a searchlight, helping us notice important details

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You can understand how this works by looking at a person reading a book in a crowded train car. His eyes move across the page from left to right, line by line. At the same time, the "spotlight of attention" moves from word to word.

The word on which a person focuses attention is clearly perceived by his consciousness, while the words that lie outside the "spotlight of attention" seem blurry and mostly illegible.

Such localization is necessary because the simultaneous perception of all visual information about the environment would lead to "overload" of the brain, which is a system with limited resources, like a computer.

"Spotlight" allows the brain to focus only on the important, ignoring all unnecessary information. Thanks to this, we are able to perceive the reality around us.

In most cases, we consciously choose where to focus our attention, but this process is not always under our voluntary control.

At the same time, not all objects and phenomena around us are perceived by us in the same way. So, for example, a bright flash of light or a sharp movement where it should not be, automatically attracts our attention, and it moves to the point where they arose.

Few people like it when something abruptly distracts their attention, but this does not happen by chance. The involuntary switching of attention is necessary in order to immediately notify a person about what is vital for his survival.

For an ancient man, the reason for automatic switching of attention could be a prey running by, or, if less lucky, an approaching danger - a predator or a dangerous enemy, for example. Image credit: iStock

Snakes, spiders, angry or frightening faces, threatening postures, and weapon-like objects are all capable of drawing our attention. We can say that visual attention prioritizes threats in the interests of self-defense.

Undoubtedly, this function helps a person to survive, but anxiety can make a system for quickly and effectively detecting threats hypersensitive, as a result of which the "spotlight of attention" begins to work to the detriment of a person.

For example, you can lose some control over your own attention, because it focuses too quickly on what the brain perceives as a danger, regardless of whether it really is or not.

And when a person focuses only on danger, negative information takes over his consciousness.

To understand exactly how anxiety can completely change a person's worldview, changing the priorities of attention, think about what it is like for a person with a high level of anxiety to travel by train through a densely populated metropolitan area.

Imagine that you are standing on a crowded subway platform, looking out into the crowd around you. Your attention is automatically attracted to people with an unfriendly expression, while you simply ignore cheerful faces.

As a result, you feel that everyone around you is a little upset, and your mood deteriorates.

While you are waiting for your stop on the train back home, you notice that a large man in a hooded sweatshirt sitting next to you is suddenly thrusting his hand into his pocket, as if trying to get a weapon.

Luckily, he pulls out a mobile phone from his pocket, but the whole situation makes you wonder what would happen if it was a gun.

As a result, you become even more convinced that the subway is a dangerous place, full of dubious characters and irritated people.

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Over the course of evolution, we have evolved the ability to spot potentially dangerous objects in our environment, such as spiders, which can be poisonous

Now imagine that this happens all the time. Due to the fact that the threat is a priority, we filter out all the good and perceive only the bad. The cognitive system is overwhelmed with excitement and fear.

This causes anxiety to have too much of an effect on how we evaluate our environment. In fact, to anxious people, the world literally seems to be a frightening and dysfunctional place.

These radical changes in perception can shape a person's worldview, including their political and ideological beliefs.

For example, a 2009 study showed that anxiety can affect a person's attention in such a way that all people from the Middle East begin to seem dangerous to him. This undoubtedly influences his political views regarding immigration.

As part of the experiment, the researchers asked participants from Western countries with different levels of anxiety to take a computer test. It consisted of pressing a key in response to visual stimuli appearing on the screen.

First, the subjects saw a word flashing on the screen, and then two faces - an Arab and a European, on each of which a dot from the sight could appear.

The results showed that people with high anxiety responded more quickly to the dots that appeared on the faces of people with an Arab appearance if they were previously shown a word associated with terrorism - for example, "bomb".

This means that when an anxious person was made to think about terrorism, the faces of people from the Middle East were the focus of his visual attention, which indicates the expectation of danger.

Research findings explain why people with high levels of anxiety often side with politicians who promise to protect the country by banning immigration and imposing tough national security measures.

This is confirmed by the results of another study conducted in 2012 by a group of scientists from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

They found that people who pay more attention to negative images tend to lean towards the right politically.

In one experiment, researchers showed liberal and conservative participants computer collages of pictures with positive and negative connotations.

At the same time, they tracked the subjects' eye movements to understand what they were paying attention to.

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If a person is prone to anxiety, the whole world may seem dangerous to him

They found that those whose attention was immediately and permanently attracted to unpleasant and repulsive images - for example, traffic accidents, dead bodies and open wounds - more often identified themselves as conservatives.

The authors of the study find it logical that people who are more alert and receptive to threats often support centre-right politicians who promise to protect society from external threats by strengthening military power and national security, introducing tougher penalties for criminals and discouraging immigration.

In its extreme manifestations, anxiety can have a serious negative impact on human health, but you can change the situation by training your attention.

What's more, today this can be done with convenient computer programs and even smartphone apps.

The most popular training method is Attention Bias Modification Training (ABMT for short), also commonly known as Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM for short).

It can include different tasks united by one goal. In standard training, patients see pictures with positive and negative images on the computer screen. As a rule, these are happy and gloomy faces, replacing each other hundreds of times.

Since anxiety is related to focusing on negative stimuli, patients are asked to select positive images by pressing a key or a screen.

By doing this again and again, and ideally - for several days or weeks in a row - they get into the habit of paying attention not to the threat and negative information, but to what is positive.

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Can we find a way to correct this skewed threat perception and get rid of anxiety?

Dozens of studies have confirmed the effectiveness of this method. Of particular interest is one published in the Journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences, Clinical Psychological Science.

It showed that a 25-45 minute session of ABMT therapy played on a mobile phone reduced threat alertness, subjective anxiety, and observed stress sensitivity.

Patients suffering from anxiety disorders who are unable to receive treatment at the clinic can now also receive psychological help with just a few minutes of an exciting mobile game on the way to work.

However, some scientists are skeptical about ABMT. In some recent studies, the effectiveness of this type of therapy has been called into question.

Scientists have proven that single sessions of ABMT are no more beneficial than other cognitive-based treatments for anxiety disorders, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and in some cases even placebo.

Scientist, professor and licensed psychologist Per Carlbring of Stockholm University admits that these criticisms are valid, but notes that mindfulness training should not be abandoned entirely.

He explains that according to a meta-analysis, attentional priority adjustment works very well for patients under 37 years of age, especially when it is done in a clinic or laboratory rather than remotely.

Carlbring noticed that the only time ABMT did not reduce anxiety levels was if it failed to adjust the attentional priorities associated with danger.

Therefore, to increase the effectiveness of this treatment method, he suggested using more dynamic tasks with realistic stimuli.

Karlbring wanted to improve the reliability of this treatment and received a grant to develop and test a new method of attention training using virtual reality. This method works in a more natural way and provides a sense of presence.

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