Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Anxiety & Attention Span

Emotions impact our ability to think and concentrate because they are automatic physical responses triggered by events in our lives.  The primary emotions described by psychologists are fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and joy.  Feelings are our perceptions of our body’s involuntary reactions to emotions. 

When our brain’s panic button, the amygdala, is engaged in threat-processing, it is assessing the environment and determining whether to ignite the fight-or-flight stress response.  This automated stress response system was designed to activate resources (increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels) to respond to a short-term problem.  And it works well to help us deal with those types of challenges.  After the problem is resolved, our rest-and-digest recovery system stabilizes our body and brain by winding down the stress response. 

The demands of law school or practice can create chronic stress, which is long-term activation of the stress response system, where a person experiences less or little recovery time.  Studying and working require time, attention, and the capacity to focus.  But negative emotions can make sustained intellectual tasks more difficult to complete.  Note that 4 of the 6 primary emotions are negative: fear, anger, sadness, and disgust.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes our two thinking systems in Thinking Fast and Slow: 1) the intuitive and automatic quick system, and 2) the deliberate and effortful slow system.  System 1 is responsible for impressions and intuitions, System 2 requires attention and concentration, and its efforts are disrupted when attention is attracted elsewhere.  System 2 is responsible for self-control and attention, which are limited cognitive resources.

Researchers have discovered that emotions can distract us from projects that require a high degree of attention.  Anxiety directs our attention to the source of the threat.  The amygdala may even be evaluating the uncertainty and unpredictability of information, as well as its relevance.  And we are likely to be more distracted by information that is irrelevant to our project (perceived environmental threats), especially if the cognitive task is challenging, such as complicated reading and complex writing.  Compensatory strategies, such as enhanced effort and protecting cognitive capacity, can mitigate anxiety-related distractions and improve performance.

Takeaway: Challenging work during stressful conditions can be derailed by anxiety and negative emotions.  To protect the quality of your work and enhance performance:

  1. Stop Multitasking
  2. Turn off email and text notifications on your computer and phone
  3. Limit your exposure to stressful information, be intentional about duration and time of day; and
  4. Download a meditation app, such as Calm or Insight Timer, to use guided meditations to enhance attention and rest-and-digest recovery resilience.

Sources

Debra S. Austin, Windmills of Your Mind: Understanding the Neurobiology of Emotion, 54 Wake Forest L. Rev. 931, 943-44, 966-67 (2019) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3374006.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow 13, 20-26 (2011).

Beatrice Pudelko, Having Trouble Concentrating during the Coronavirus Pandemic? Neuroscience Explains Why, Medical Xpress, June 9, 2020, https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-06-coronavirus-pandemic-neuroscience.html

Nillie Lavie, Distracted and Confused?: Selective Attention Under Load, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences Vol.9 No.2 February 2005, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2004.12.004

Michael Eysenck, Nazanin Derakshan, Rita Santos, and Manual Calvo, Anxiety and cognitive performance: Attentional control theory,  Emotion, Vol 7(2), May 2007, 336-353, American Psychological Association, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.453.3592&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Luiz Pessoa and Ralph Adolphs, Emotion processing and the amygdala: from a ‘low road’ to ‘many roads’ of evaluating biological significance, Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Nov; 11(11): 773–783, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3025529/

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