Selective Attention & Helping Students with Anxiety

As part of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, cognitive scientist and accommodations specialist, Dr Sue Wilkinson, unpacks the science behind mental health and cognition. We ask: how and why does anxiety affect students’ attention and ability to multitask?

Taking notes in lectures requires high levels of attention for all students. These levels of attention will naturally fluctuate, depending on numerous factors, such as tiredness, stress levels, emotions, hunger, background noise, and interest in the topic. This is an issue that all students must contend with, and develop strategies that help them to stay on task and pay attention when necessary.

But for those with anxiety disorders, having conscious control over their attention may be more difficult. So it’s important to consider the impact of selective attention when considering mental health on campus.

When we are anxious we may constantly be worrying about all sorts of things. Students without mental health difficulties are able to identify what is a significant concern and what is not significant, and can usually block out the insignificant worries so that they can focus on the lecture, or task at hand. Students with an anxiety disorder may not always be able to distinguish between significant and insignificant concerns, and cannot always filter these out to maintain attention.

Indeed, if you’re helping students with anxiety, it’s important to remember that for someone with extreme anxiety all concerns may seem significant.


Student Anxiety & Multi-Tasking

People with anxiety cannot always divide their attention – thus, they struggle to “multi-task”.

Let’s take note-taking as an example. Note taking in lectures requires us to divide our attention between many tasks.

  • Firstly we must listen to the lecturer and process auditory information;
  • At the same time we must read from the lecture slides and process the written or visual information presented there;  
  • Then, we must identify the salient information being delivered, and transfer this into written note form on paper or laptop.

All these cognitive processes need to take place almost simultaneously.

The cognitive load during this time is fairly high, and added to that is the requirement to suppress repetitive internal thoughts that occur naturally to us throughout the day (did I turn the oven off, what shall I wear to my cousin’s wedding at the weekend, what shall I have for lunch, what will happen if I fail this assignment, etc).

For students with anxiety, these small interruptions are more difficult to suppress. Attention is often diverted away from the lecture to whatever is worrying them at that moment in time.

Attention is a limited resource, and so being able to select what we attend to is paramount in filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what is important. This ability to select what we attend to is something that can be challenging for people with anxiety. Anxiety can also have the effect of leaning the person more towards paying attention to negative thoughts and feelings, and therefore switching attention away from worries and concerns can be challenging.


The Science: What is going on in the Brain?

The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain that controls thought processes. Two lobes in particular are responsible for attention, the frontal and parietal lobes.  These areas help us to focus our attention, and keep us on task. This part of the brain (commonly known as the ‘thinking brain’) has strong connections with the amygdala, an important part of the brain that controls emotions (the ‘emotional brain’). The ‘emotional brain’ can send messages to the ‘thinking brain’ without us realising.

Anxiety can be unconscious as well as conscious.

We may not realise that we feel threatened or anxious, but the amygdala registers our fear or anxiety and sends ‘shock waves’ to our attentional centre without us having any awareness of what is happening. Although we may not be conscious of this anxiety, these waves (or signals) are still sent to the part of the brain that controls attention – as we have established that these two areas of the brain are well connected.  Thus, fear and anxiety we are not even aware of can impact on our ability to focus and pay attention.

This explains why our attention is so influenced by our emotions, and why helping students with anxiety will require additional support and strategies to overcome the impact their illness may have on their ability to adaptively control their selective attention.

If you’re worried about mental health on campus there are plenty of resources that you or your students can access. Check back into our blog to read advice from experts in the Sonocent Community about the support every institution can offer for well-rounded mental health care.

Looking into AT? It's important to make sure the solutions you choose are suitable for users of all cognitive abilities. Read our blog to find out more.

Published by

Dr Sue Wilkinson

Dr. Sue Wilkinson is a cognitive psychologist, Senior Fellow of the UK’s Higher Education Academy and Director at NeuroDigital Consulting Ltd. With 10 years’ experience in Higher Education and 4 years working with students with disabilities, she’s developed a particular expertise in neurodiversity in education, its effect on cognition, and the use of assistive technology to support learning.

What's your experience?