Cognitive Attentional Syndrome: What’s it All About?

December 15, 2018

What do we usually do when something brings us down? It depends on the person, of course. Some people try to carry out emotional regulation strategies and others, on the other hand, resort to negative and jeopardizing thoughts. If something makes them upset, sad, or angry, they do nothing else but overthink it.

Does overthinking help make negative emotions disappear? Absolutely not. Quite the opposite, actually. The only thing we gain from overthinking is entering a vicious cycle where we only focus on our problems and feel worse as a consequence. The problem is that we’re not always aware of when we enter that useless vicious cycle. Although some people may be more aware of it than others, they do nothing to stop it – or do they?

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”

-Buddha-

What does cognitive attentional syndrome consist of?

Cognitive psychology expresses that the way in which we process information and our thoughts regarding a situation is, in fact, what determines our emotional experience. This means that the way we process our “emotional” thoughts will have an effect on our well-being. It’s safe to say that some ways to handle this internal experience are more effective than others.

A person who is sad or worried about something but looks for solutions and relaxes their mind won’t feel the same way as someone who gets stuck in their harmful ideas and overthinks like there’s no tomorrow. This last example corresponds to what happens to those who suffer from cognitive attentional syndrome.

Cognitive attentional syndrome is characterized by a pattern of negative thoughts and emotions that the person can’t seem to let go of. Why does this happen? Because there’s a series of metacognitive processes that make this cycle chronic and invariable.

Woman with cognitive attentional syndrome crying on her couch.

Cognitive processing in cognitive attentional syndrome

This syndrome is characterized by a pattern of thoughts that include rumination, worry, fixed attention, and negative coping.

First off, our attention bias is fixed in those stimuli or situations that make us uncomfortable. When we fix our attention on negative events, they become more positive than positive ones. This means that an event must be much more positive than negative so that it comes to mind when someone asks us how we’re doing.

Also, we keep overthinking these negative situations, making it impossible for us to take our attention away from those pessimistic thoughts. Lastly, a lack of appropriate emotional regulation strategies significantly perpetuates this process.

“The way to overcome negative thoughts and destructive emotions is to develop opposing, positive emotions that are stronger and more powerful.”

-Dalai Lama-

Woman covering her face with her hands.

What are the consequences of this syndrome?

Thinking nonstop about negative issues can lead to depression and anxiety. When it comes to depression, cognitive attentional syndrome assumes that there’s a possibility for the negative cognitive triad, characteristic of this disorder, (negative thoughts about oneself, the world, and the future) to be intensified and prolonged.

Thus, those who suffer from depression ask themselves questions such as “Why do I feel this way?” to which they respond negatively and, in most cases, unrealistically. For example, “Because I’m a complete failure” instead of rationally thinking “I feel this way because I’m going through a hard time, but it’ll pass”.

The individual repeats this process over and over again until it becomes automatic, which makes them unable to perceive the positive aspects of any situation. On the other hand, in regards to anxiety, there’s an attentional bias on the possible dangers. Ruminative thoughts such as “What if this happens?” manifest this “threat monitoring”.

The problem is that the individual only focuses on the possible problems they may encounter in the future instead of coming up with solutions in case they do happen. This increases their anxiety levels, making psychological intervention much more difficult. In addition, the individual also tends to avoid situations in which those dangers may occur.

This explains why it’s so difficult for the person to think of realistic experiences as opposed to angsty, unfounded ones. In short, cognitive attentional syndrome hinders the already difficult task of relaxing our mind when something causes discomfort. This is why it’s important to be aware of it in order to manage it and regain our well-being.

“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.”

-Mahatma Gandhi-