Description: I will not even ask whether you know what anxiety is, of course you do, especially given how much experience we have all had with it recently. Have you also heard about the Yerkes-Dodson Law? Basically, it says that for most tasks that we take on, a certain amount of stress increases our performance on that task while a lot of stress reduces our performance and the “sweet spot” for optimal performance varies with the complexity of the task. For complex tasks, the inverted U-shaped curve of the Yerkes-Dodson Law shifts left so that the amount of stress that starts to cause performance to degrade is lower while for simple tasks the curve shifts right so that increases in stress lead to increased performance for higher levels of stress. We tend to think the same way about anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling we experience in situations of threat and uncertainty. How does anxiety relate to our motivation and performance? I suspect you think that something like the Yerkes-Dodson Law applies there too. Low to moderate levels of anxiety get us going on required tasks while high levels of anxiety shut us down. That is why many people procrastinate, right? They put things off in order to build up a sufficiently motivating level of anxiety. Makes sense, does it not? But what if all of this is not really based on a solid research foundation? If anxiety is a reactive response to threat, then it is not something we would be able to dial up and down. What we can dial up and down is worry or thinking about things that could produce anxiety. We seem to believe that we can cognitively control our anxiety, by thinking about it. But what if our worry and particularly the debilitating worry that many people are struggling with is a habit? What if, when we experience anxiety, we find that we distract ourselves from it by worrying (ruminating) about possible negative outcomes and that distraction reduces our experience of anxiety and thus is negatively reinforcing? That negative reinforcement can lead us to a habit of worrying as a way of fending off anxiety, much like how eating cake or chocolate can be negatively reinforcing when we are anxious or stressed and can lead to an overeating or a sweets stuff eating habit. Our current treatments for anxiety really do not work very well at all. Would treating what we do in response to anxiety as a worry habit make a difference in treatment efficacy? Wouldn’t THAT be something? Read the article linked below to find out more about this possible approach.
Source: Why Targeting Entrenched Habits Can Treat Anxiety, Judson Brewer, The Craving Mind, Psychology Today.
Date: March 19, 2021
I must say I was surprised to see the data on the small level of empirical support or the Yerkes-Dodson Law. I will certainly be updating my lecture notes. The data on the treatment effects of various approaches to treatment anxiety disorders was also surprising to me with only 1 in over 5 people responding to drug-based treatment and CBT producing 50/50 rates of impact. The data on the positive impacts of treating the worry associated with anxiety issues the same way that eating and smoking habits might be treated is very intriguing. I am going to dig in a bit deeper to Brewer’s work in those areas and to his anxiety treatment app as well. Could be worth consideration!
Questions for Discussion:
- What is the Yerkes-Dodson Law?
- How might the Yerkes-Dodson Law apply to anxiety issues?
- What might approaching the worry cycles associated with anxiety issues as a habit provide us in that way of a new anxiety treatment approach?
References (Read Further):
Brewer, Judson (2021) Unwinding Anxiety: New Sciences Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind, Avery. Link
Brewer, J. A., Mallik, S., Babuscio, T. A., Nich, C., Johnson, H. E., Deleone, C. M., … & Rounsaville, B. J. (2011). Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: results from a randomized controlled trial. Drug and alcohol dependence, 119(1-2), 72-80. Link
Mason, A. E., Jhaveri, K., Cohn, M., & Brewer, J. A. (2018). Testing a mobile mindful eating intervention targeting craving-related eating: feasibility and proof of concept. Journal of behavioral medicine, 41(2), 160-173. Link
Roy, A., Druker, S., Hoge, E. A., & Brewer, J. A. (2020). Physician anxiety and burnout: symptom correlates and a prospective pilot study of App-delivered mindfulness training. JMIR mHealth and uHealth, 8(4), e15608. Link
Segerstrom, S. C., Tsao, J. C., Alden, L. E., & Craske, M. G. (2000). Worry and rumination: Repetitive thought as a concomitant and predictor of negative mood. Cognitive therapy and Research, 24(6), 671-688. Link