Anxiety affects attention processes

June 10, 2010, University of Granada

A research conducted at the University of Granada, Spain, has identified the different effects of being of a nervous disposition and being anxious at a given moment on what happens around us. Being of a nervous disposition and being anxious at a given moment affects our attention to what happens.

This finding will help improve the treatment of disorders, so common in our days. In fact, anxiety has become one of the most common conditions among the population, which can explain the negative connotations usually associated to this term.

The study was developed by Antonia Pilar Pacheco-Unguetti, Alberto Acosta, Alicia Callejas and Juan Lupiáñez, from the department of Experimental Psychology and Behavioural Physiology of the University of Granada. It will be published in the next issue of the prestigious journal Psychological Science.

Two Types of Anxiety

There are two types of anxiety: trait anxiety, which is a quality of personality that indicates a tendency to feel anxiety and restlessness; and state anxiety, which is an emotional reaction raised in response to a stressful situation or context. Therefore, the later it is of a more immediate and ephemeral nature.

However, the difference between trait and state anxiety has not been identified or established for decades, on the grounds that both types of anxiety make individuals more receptive to negative information, to the detriment of positive or neutral information.

The researchers from the University of Granada have evaluated whether these subtypes of anxiety affect attention differently. To the purpose of this study, an attention test prepared by the researchers was provided to some participants with high and low trait anxiety values, and to other groups of students that had been previously induced to a high state of anxiety or to a positive emotional state.

The results revealed double dissociation in attentional performance. Cognitive control networks of participants with high trait anxiety values showed a deficient attentional performance. Cognitive control networks are responsible for conflict resolution and voluntary action control, functions which are related to the prefrontal cortex. Conversely, the participants with high state anxiety presented an overfunctioning of the alerting and orienting networks, which are attention networks more heavily influenced by the process of analysis of stimuli.

The results obtained provide first evidence that trait and state anxiety affect attention processes differently. Further, from these results, it can be concluded that such influence is present in situations where emotional information processing is not required. This dissociation may help develop specific therapies allowing patients with to control themselves. The aim is to help patients reinforce efficient mechanisms to focus on the demands of the situation by inhibiting distracting information.

More information: References:

Bishop, S.J. (2009). Trait anxiety and impoverished prefrontal control of attention. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 92-98.

Bishop, S.J., Jenkins, R., y Lawrence, A.D. (2007). Neural processing of fearful faces: Effects of anxiety are gated by perceptual capacity limitations. Cerebral Cortex, 17, 1595-1603.

Callejas, A., Lupiáñez, J., y Tudela, P. (2004). The three attentional networks: On their independence and interactions. Brain and Cognition, 54(3), 225-227.

Pacheco-Unguetti, A. P., Acosta, A., Callejas, A., y Lupiáñez, J. (en prensa). Attention and anxiety: Different attentional functioning under state and trait anxiety. Psychological Science.

Pacheco-Unguetti, A. P., Lupiáñez, J., y Acosta, A. (2009). Atención y ansiedad: relaciones de la alerta y el control con la ansiedad rasgo. Psicológica, 30, 1-25.

Posner, M. I., y Petersen, S. E. (1990). The attention system of the human brain. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 13, 25-42.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Self-compassion may protect people from the harmful effects of perfectionism

February 21, 2018
Relating to oneself in a healthy way can help weaken the association between perfectionism and depression, according to a study published February 21, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Madeleine Ferrari from Australian ...

Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia

February 21, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein—neuregulin 3—controls how key neurotransmitters are released ...

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

Jymmin: How a combination of exercise and music helps us feel less pain

February 20, 2018
Pain is essential for survival. However, it could also slow the progress of rehabilitation, or in its chronic form could become a distinct disorder. How strongly we feel it, among other factors, depends on our individual ...

College roommates underestimate each other's distress, new psychology research shows

February 19, 2018
College roommates are sensitive to their roommates' distress but tend to underestimate the level of distress being experienced by others, finds a newly published study from New York University psychology researchers.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.