Focusing on past successes can be effective for overcoming mental health challenges

BERKELEY, Calif. — It certainly feels like the world is spinning off its axis sometimes, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because of that, many have been dealing with a surge of anxiety, depression, and many other mental health-related issues. Clinically depressed and anxious people may find it difficult to make sound decisions. However, researchers from UC Berkeley find by focusing on what you do right, instead of wrong, judgment can improve.

Study authors tested the probabilistic decision-making skills of more than 300 adults. Their study focused on individuals with major depressive disorders and generalized anxiety disorders. Without noticing, people usually make a decision based off the positive or negative findings of a previously completed task. In probabilistic decision making, it aids their present decision-making strategies.

When it comes to adapting to change, individuals who have symptoms of anxiety and depression find difficulty in performing computerized tasks that replicate dramatic environment changes. Individuals with little-to-no symptoms of either depression or anxiety resiliently adapted to the computerized conditions of change.

“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,” says study senior author Sonia Bishop in a university release. “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.”

Can therapy lead to making decision-making skills?

Researchers note continuing to deal with clinical depression and anxiety does not mean these patients will also continue making bad judgement calls. Bishop recommends cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which can help decision making and confidence by focusing on previous successes for that individual.

Bishop’s study is an expansion of her 2015 study, which discovered highly anxious individuals made more mistakes when challenged with computerized tasks that provided volatile environments. On the other end, non-anxious people adjusted quickly to changing patterns.

Did this mean that people with depression would also struggle with their decision-making skills? Seeing as though depression and anxiety find common ground, Bishop and his team wanted to dig deeper.

“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,” Bishop explains. “We also sought to find out if the problem was a general one or specific to learning about potential reward or potential threat.”

Sometimes, dwelling on the past is a good thing

Researchers examined 86 men and women between the ages of 18 and 50 during this study. The group included people diagnosed with generalized anxiety, major depressive disorder, those with symptoms of anxiety or depression, and individuals with no mental health issues.

The team had individuals play a computer game where they had to continuously choose a circle and a square. When selecting one shape, a mild electrical shock would occur. When choosing the other, participants would receive a monetary prize. The game delivered a shock or a reward at predictable times in some rounds, but at random instances in others. Individuals with depression and anxiety symptoms did not fair well with the pace of these changes.

The second study gathered 147 U.S. adults with different levels of anxiety and depression. This study mirrored the previous one, with one variation — participants chose between yellow and red squares. Monetary gain still remained, but instead of an electrical shock, players would lose money as a penalty.

In conclusion, those experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression have a hard time making a sound decision under uncertain circumstances. This may explain the pandemic’s devastating impact on mental health over the last year. Despite this, focusing on past triumphs can lead to new ones as people overcome challenges of anxiety and depression.

The study findings appear in the journal eLife.

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