Negative biases in anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression influences how you perceive the world around you. Research has found that people with anxiety and depression experience what is known as negativity bias.

Negativity bias means that a person is more inclined towards the negative and this can happen in a variety of different ways. Those who are anxious and depressed tend to notice negative or threatening information more readily than neutral or positive. An example of this would be noticing the bored or angry look on one particular colleagues face as you talk in a meeting rather than all the other attentive and happy ones.

Additionally, when in a situation where something ambiguous or neutral occurs, someone with anxiety or depression is more likely to interpret the situation negatively or in a threatening way. (Mogg, Bradbury, & Bradley, 2006) An example of this would be seeing a man running down the street and thinking that he must be a criminal fleeing from a crime rather than someone who might be running for the bus.

Also when recalling something that has happened, those with anxiety and depression are more likely to recall the negative and threatening information more easily than neutral or positive information. An example of this would be remembering all the mistakes you made in a job interview rather than the fact you answered most of the questions well.

Researchers have not been able to identify as yet the reason for the negativity bias, however one theory suggests that it is linked to our survival mechanisms. It makes sense that we be on the lookout for danger in our environment in order to keep us safe. It is better to overreact by assuming the worse and stay alive than underreact and end up dead. And remembering threatening experiences from the past can help us to avoid those situations in the future in order to stay safe. You can see how this would have been useful in the days where there were a lot of wild animals around or any other potential life or death situation, but it no longer serves us in the same way in our modern lives.

So you can see how these negativity biases can influence how we think, how we feel and how we behave. And not only that, how it can contribute to and maintain anxiety and depression. Things appear more negative and threatening than they actually are.

Whilst these negativity biases are symptomatic of anxiety and depression, it doesn’t mean that’s it, that you’ll always be negative and have anxiety or depression forever. You can make changes to the way you think and respond to situations so that your perception of what is happening is more balanced. Being able to see the positives or even the neutral rather than just focusing on the negatives, will make you feel a whole lot better, allowing you greater capacity to deal with what is happening in your day to day life, which will help to reduce your anxiety and depression.

The first step in making a change is to become aware of it and understand why it’s happening. Hopefully this article goes some way to helping you do that. And then you can start to retrain your thoughts so that they are more balanced, moving away from that negative bias. Here are some ways to kick start that:

  • Be mindful. Be aware of what you are experiencing in the now - what you can see, hear, taste, touch and smell, as well as what you are thinking and feeling. Don’t question or judge it in anyway, just notice what you’re noticing in an accepting way. This helps to build your awareness of what is happening for you in your perceptions and thoughts.

  • Record your thoughts. Make a note of the negative thoughts that you are having. Think about where the thought is getting you and whether there are any aspects of the thought that are not true. Recognise any faulty thinking such as black or white thinking or catastrophising, to name just two. Is there any evidence to support that negative thought? Look at this logically and rationally. Then with a better understanding of the thought, reconstruct it into something that is more neutral and supporting for you.

  • Problem solving. Once you’ve identified a problem that is causing you stress or worry, spend some time to understand what is going on. What, when and where is the problem occurring? How do you feel about it? If you could solve the problem, would your life improve? And if so, in what way? Which parts of the problem are within your control? Then brainstorm ways in which you can solve your problem. Often this can be helpful to do with someone else - two head are better than one after all! Don’t filter or judge any of the ideas on how effective or easy they’ll be, just get them all written down. Once you’ve done that, then select the solution that has the most potential in helping you. Do you have the resources you need to carry it out? Spend some time fine tuning the solution where necessary. And then carry it out. Always reflect back on what you have done afterwards. Did the solution solve the problem? What would you do differently next time?

  • Three positives/gratitudes. Writing down what has been good about your day and or what you feel grateful has been found to reduce stress and lift your mood. It’s a great little exercise and helps to get you used to focusing on what is going well and the more positive aspects of your day to day life. Find out more about how to do this.

This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you a few evidence-based ways that you can help yourself move away from that negative bias.

Related articles:


  • Mogg, K., Bradbury, K.E. & Bradley, B.P. (2006) Interpretation of ambiguous information in clinical depression. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Vol 44(10) Pg 1411-1419