Anxiety Moderates the Interplay Between Cognitive and Affective Processing

Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53706-1696, USA.
Psychological Science (Impact Factor: 4.43). 09/2007; 18(8):699-705. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01963.x
Source: PubMed


Evidence suggests that focus of attention and cognitive load may each affect emotional processing and that individual differences in anxiety moderate such effects. We examined (a) fear-potentiated startle (FPS) under threat-focused (TF), low-load/alternative-set (LL/AS), and high-load/alternative-set (HL/AS) conditions and (b) the moderating effect of trait anxiety on FPS across these conditions. As predicted, redirecting attentional focus away from threat cues and increasing cognitive load reduced FPS. However, the moderating effects of anxiety were specific to the LL/AS condition. Whereas FPS was comparable for high-anxiety and low-anxiety subjects in the TF and HL/AS conditions, FPS was significantly greater for high-anxiety than for low-anxiety subjects in the LL/AS condition. These results suggest that affective processing requires attentional resources and that exaggerated threat processing in anxious individuals relates to direction of attention rather than emotional reactivity per se.

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    • "For the former, evidence has been inconsistent. Studies examining fear-potentiated startle reflex have suggested that enhanced distraction in anxiety is reduced under cognitive load (Dvorak-Bertsch et al., 2007; Vytal et al., 2012), investigations examining the late positive potential (LPP; associated with emotional arousal) have implied smaller reductions under load in anxious individuals (MacNamara et al., 2011), and studies measuring distraction by emotional faces have found increased vigilance in anxiety under load (Ladouceur et al., 2009; Judah et al., 2013). However, these effects may be confounded by the influence of cognitive load on emotion processing in general. "
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    • "In addition, the allocation of attention to salient emotion cues may impair other executive functions, including inhibition, shifting, updating, and control (Deveney & Pizzagalli, 2008; Ellis & Ashbrook, 1988; Keil, Bradley, Junghöfer, Russmann, Lowenthal & Lang, 2007; Pessoa, 2009). That is, a pervasive threat bias of this type could undermine a person's capacity to maintain cognitive control when one's bias to process emotion distractors competes with an Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci experimenter's instructions to focus on a competing set of stimuli (e.g., Bishop, Duncan, Brett, & Lawrence, 2004; Dvorak-Bertsch et al., 2007). Similarly, such a bias may also work against reorienting attention away from salient threat stimuli, as was reported by Fox and colleagues (Fox et al., 2001, 2002). "
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