Focusing on past success can help people with depression and anxiety make better decisions: Study

People with depression and anxiety often don’t make sound decisions. But researchers at UC Berkeley feel that with cognitive behaviour therapy that can change.
overthinking and procrastination
Overthinking can make you procrastinate. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
ANI Published: 24 Dec 2020, 14:26 pm IST
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It’s not easy living with clinical anxiety or depression. These mental health ailments, which very well have the ability to clog your brain, can make taking decisions and very difficult—especially when you’re feeling overwhelmed or when things around you are chaotic.

But if you have anxiety and/or depression, then all is not lost. Because according to researchers, you can build a fruitful life and make sound decisions by changing your perspective. Let us put it this say: researchers from University of California (UC) Berkley say that overly anxious and depressed people’s judgment can improve if they focus on what they get right, instead of what they get wrong.

These findings were published in the journal eLife, are particularly salient in the face of a covid-19 surge that demands tactical and agile thinking to avoid illness and even death.

How did the researchers come to this conclusion?

Well UC Berkeley researchers tested the probabilistic decision-making skills of more than 300 adults, including people with major depressive disorder and generalised anxiety disorder.

In probabilistic decision making, people, often without being aware of it, use the positive or negative results of their previous actions to inform their current decisions.

The researchers found that the study participants whose symptoms intersect with both anxiety and depression—such as worrying a lot, feeling unmotivated or not feeling good about themselves or about the future—had the most trouble adjusting to changes when performing a computerised task that simulated a volatile or rapidly changing environment.

On the other hand, emotionally resilient study participants, with few, if any, symptoms of anxiety and depression, learned more quickly to adjust to changing conditions based on the actions they had previously taken to achieve the best available outcomes.

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“When everything keeps changing rapidly, and you get a bad outcome from a decision you make, you might fixate on what you did wrong, which is often the case with clinically anxious or depressed people,” said study senior author Sonia Bishop, a professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley.

“Conversely, emotionally resilient people tend to focus on what gave them a good outcome, and in many real-world situations that might be key to learning to make good decisions,” added Bishop.

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Cognitive behaviour therapy can help people with anxiety and depression be more confident in their decisions

Bishop believes that people with clinical anxiety and depression aren’t doomed to a life of bad decisions. Individualized treatments, such as cognitive behaviour therapy, could improve both decision-making skills and confidence by focusing on past successes, instead of failures, she noted.

The study expands on Bishop’s 2015 study, which found that people with high levels of anxiety made more mistakes when tasked with making decisions during computerised assignments that simulated both stable and rapidly changing environments.

For this latest study, Bishop and her team looked at whether people with depression would also struggle to make sound decisions in volatile environments and whether this would hold true when challenged with different versions of the task.

”We wanted to see if this weakness was unique to people with anxiety, or if it also presented in people with depression, which often goes hand in hand with anxiety. We also sought to find out if the problem was a general one or specific to learning about potential reward or potential threat,” Bishop said.

Also, read: Ever felt so stressed you can’t think ahead? A study links stress to disrupted decision making

“We found that people who are emotionally resilient are good at latching on to the best course of action when the world is changing fast,” Bishop added.

“People with anxiety and depression, on the other hand, are less able to adapt to these changes. Our results suggest they might benefit from cognitive therapies that redirect their attention to positive, rather than negative, outcomes,” she concluded.

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