A disruption in the balance of attentional systems plays a role in trait anxiety

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Elevated levels of anxiety are associated with attentional threat biases and inefficient attentional control, with the latter requiring sustained cognitive effort. The current study assessed self-reported and behavioral evidence of attentional functioning, along with electrodermal activity (EDA; measured via changes in skin conductance level [SCL reactivity]) as an index of sympathetic arousal, to examine whether these vulnerabilities are evident among individuals with elevated trait anxiety (non-clinical). Fifty-nine participants completed a working memory span task measuring attentional control under high cognitive load. A visual change detection task assessed stimulus-driven attention as an indicator of vigilance to non-threatening visual information. Trait anxiety was self-reported. SCL was captured at rest and during the working memory task. Results revealed that trait anxiety was positively related to speed of visual change detection, without accuracy costs, suggesting enhanced vigilance for neutral visual information among those higher in trait anxiety. Trait anxiety also moderated the relation between change detection speed and attentional control, such that attentional vigilance was not associated with variation in attentional control for individuals higher in trait anxiety. However, for individuals lower in trait anxiety, vigilance was negatively associated with attention control. The relationship between vigilance and attentional control was also moderated by SCL reactivity such that the association was only significant at lower SCL reactivity levels. Taken together, results suggest that individuals higher in trait anxiety demonstrate greater attentional control in the service of visual detection, but greater attentional control may come at the cost of increased sympathetic arousal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number761
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalBrain Sciences
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience


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