What many studies have shown is that people who worry a lot seem to be sensitive to information that suggest to them that something bad is about to happen. People who worry a lot also do not pay as much attention to signs and indications that things are fine and that they are safe. They tend to immediately interpret ambiguous information (where it is not clear whether a scenario is positive, neutral, or negative) as threatening or potentially dangerous compared to people who are low in worry and anxiety. In other words, they will tend to jump to conclusions and think the worst when there is no immediate indication that something bad is about to happen. In addition, people who have problems with excessive worry tend to be easily distracted by worry and once they start worrying they find it very difficult to shift their attention away from their worry. Concentration problems are commonly reported by people who struggle with worry.

Researchers are always striving to find the most effective ways to help people who suffer from excessive and uncontrollable worry because this can be a challenging problem to treat. Given that people who worry a lot tend to pay attention to things in a way that heightens their feelings of anxiety, researchers are especially interested in developing interventions that help people learn how to pay attention in a more helpful way. Some of these interventions are designed to train people to notice and pay more consistent attention to the ‘facts’ of a situation or to signs and indications of safety, while others aim to strengthen the control that individuals have over their attention in a more general sense, with the hopes that they will become better able to notice and disengage from the beginnings of a worry spiral.

People who worry a lot might not be aware of the harmful ways in which they pay attention, beyond knowing that they find it hard to stop worrying. Mindfulness meditation is a type of intervention that encourages people to 1) become more aware, more “mindful” so to speak, of what they are paying attention to, and 2) to refrain from worrying about or over-analyzing their thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. The goal of mindfulness training is to help people to become more aware of their attention so that they can gain control over it, and to become open and receptive to their ongoing experience. Mindfulness has shown to be effective at reducing worry and anxiety.

A recent study by Ainsworth, Bolderston and Garner (2017) compared the two fundamental components of mindfulness interventions: awareness of attention and refraining from over-analyzing, to see if one had a bigger impact on worry than the other. In the “attention” group, people were directed to focus on specific physical sensations in their body, while in the “acceptance” group, people were told to openly monitor their attention, and to accept any thoughts, feeling and physical sensations that might arise. These two groups were compared to a third group, “progressive muscle relaxation,” which is another intervention that has been demonstrated to work for anxiety and worry. Progressive muscle relaxation involves gradually relaxing different muscle groups. 77 volunteers were randomly assigned to one of these three conditions, each lasting 10 minutes.

To test whether the interventions were able to immediately increase peoples’ control over their attention, participants were asked to sit silently and to focus on their breathing following the interventions. If the interventions were successful, then people would find it easier to concentrate on their breathing, and would be better able to refrain from worrying, or to stop a worry spiral before it started.

The results showed that the two mindfulness interventions were both more effective than the progressive muscle relaxation group at training control over attention. Specifically, the acceptance-based mindfulness intervention was the most effective. People in the acceptance-based condition were best able to focus on their breathing, and they spent less time worrying while doing so. These effects were seen in people who suffer from high levels of worry and anxiety, as well as those who don’t, suggesting that regardless of how much worry impacts one’s life, everyone may benefit from mindfulness interventions. The results also suggest that acceptance, or refraining from worrying about or over-analyzing one’s thoughts, emotions, or physical sensations, is the most important aspect of mindfulness training.

So what this research seems to be suggesting is that mindfulness interventions can help people gain better control over their attention, which in turn can help to reduce their worry. Specifically, accepting one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations may lead to better mental health.