Category: Adult Anxiety

PS2- #A1 - Influence of State Worry on Covert Selective Attention to Threatening Stimuli: An ERP Study

Friday, Nov 17
9:45 AM – 10:45 AM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Worry | Attention | Psychophysiology

Worry has been shown to be a transdiagnostic vulnerability and maintenance factor for multiple mood and anxiety disorders. A recent theoretical model suggests that pathological worry impairs adaptive regulation of cognitive threat representation by consuming executive resources. In line with this prediction, recent research has demonstrated that individuals with high levels of chronic worry demonstrate an inability to distinguish task irrelevant threatening and neutral stimuli under conditions of high cognitive load compared to low worriers. However, the causal role of worry’s influence on threat processing are unclear. The goal of the current study was to document the causal impact of worry on processing of threat and neutral faces using the N2pc, an ERP component that indicates covert selective attention. It is predicted that worry will be associated with decreased N2pc amplitude.


Thirty-six undergraduates were randomly assigned to engage in a worry induction or a relaxation induction prior to a change detection task. In this paradigm, designed to elicit lateralized cortical activity, threatening facial images are presented on one side of the screen and neutral on the other, following an arrow indicating which side to attend to. This design allowed us to examine whether covert selective attention is sensitive to worry and threatening information. EEG data were collected to calculate the N2pc, a neural indicator of covert selective attention.


Results indicated significant main effects for stimulus [F(1, 34)= 6.41, p= .016, η2= .16] and laterality [F(1, 34)= 4.22, p= .048, η2= .11], which was qualified by a marginally significant two-way interaction (condition x laterality) [F(1, 34)= 3.77, p = .06, η2= .10]. Post-hoc comparisons suggested that the N2pc was significantly more negative at sites contralateral to target stimuli (as would be expected) only in the relaxation condition (= -.662 p= .017) and not in the worry condition (= -.019 p= .939). Specifically, there was a significant N2pc during the relaxation condition and not worry, indicating worry impairs covert selective attention.


Results of this study are consistent with theoretical predictions from theoretical model of worry. Specifically, the data suggest that worry impairs task related attention control (i.e., attend to a particular side of the screen) compared to relaxation.  These results indicate that worry may play a causal role in maladaptive responding to stimuli in the environment and document a proposed theoretical mechanism of the development of biased information processing related to worry.

Evan J. White

Graduate Student
Oklahoma State University
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Danielle L. Taylor

Graduate Research Assistant
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma

Kristen E. Frosio

Oklahoma State University

Jacob D. Kraft

Graduate Student
Oklahoma State University

DeMond M. Grant

Oklahoma State University