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Live Better, Feel Better, in Spite of Anxiety and Depression

In these chaotic times, it pays to stay focused on the positive.

whoismargot/Pixabay, used with permission
Stop worrying about past mistakes.
Source: whoismargot/Pixabay, used with permission

By paying more attention to the things you get right in life, you can become more emotionally resilient and focused in spite of your struggle with anxiety or depression, according to a recent study published by the University of California, Berkley in the online journal eLife. The study looked at the decision-making abilities of more than 300 adult men and women with major depressive disorder and/or generalized anxiety disorder.

Specifically, the researchers looked at the study participant’s probabilistic decision making, when current decisions are based on the results of previous actions. Often, people don’t even realize that previous decisions are informing the decisions they make in the moment.

The researchers found that participants with symptoms of depression or anxiety, such as feeling bad about themselves, constant worrying, or lack of motivation, had more difficulty adjusting to changes in a computerized test simulating a chaotic or rapidly changing situation than did participants who had few or no symptoms of anxiety or depression, who tended to be more emotionally resilient to rapid change. These participants were able to quickly adjust to changing situations and base their decisions on what to do next on actions they had taken in the past to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

In both a laboratory setting and an online crowdsourcing platform, participants were given the task of choosing between two shapes or two different colored shapes. If they chose the “right” shape or color, they received a monetary reward but if they chose the “wrong” shape or color, they lost money or received a harmless electrical shock. Sometimes, participants were able to predict which shape or color would give a positive result, but at other times it became more difficult and confusing. Those with obvious symptoms of anxiety and depression had a harder time making good decisions under the duress of changing circumstances than emotionally resilient participants, who were better able to adapt to less stable situations.

People who are clinically anxious or depressed often fixate on past mistakes in decision making that resulted in poor or negative outcomes, while those who are more emotionally resilient generally focus on what worked for them in the past. This decision-making skill, the authors conclude, may help them learn to make good decisions that render positive results henceforth.

They suggest that people with clinical depression and/or anxiety may benefit from treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, where a trained psychologist can help them improve their decision-making skills and confidence in their decisions by redirecting their focus to previous successes rather than previous failures. We learn more from positive results than negative, the study authors suggest, and that can increase our ability to adjust and adapt to a rapidly changing and uncertain world.


Gagne C, Zika O, Dayan P, Bishop SJ. Impaired adaptation of learning to contingency volatility in internalizing psychopathology. eLife December 22, 2020.