Trait anxiety and disgust proneness are two individual difference variables implicated in the pathogenesis of posttraumatic stress (e.g., Engelhard et al., 2011; Jakšić et al., 2012). Executive attention – defined as the ability to flexibly disengage, shift, and refocus attention as desired in the face of competing attentional demands (Rothbart, 2007) – moderates the association between individual difference variables (i.e., vulnerability factors) and posttraumatic stress symptoms, particularly hyperarousal symptoms (Bardeen & Fergus, 2016). Bardeen and Fergus (2016) proposed that executive attention buffers against posttraumatic stress, such that the ability to down-regulate negative affective states may increase the likelihood individuals engage with trauma-relevant contexts, thereby facilitating emotional processing. Following from Bardeen and Fergus’s (2016) findings, executive attention would be expected to buffer the effects of trait anxiety and disgust proneness on posttraumatic stress, specifically hyperarousal symptoms. The present study was completed to examine this expected pattern of associations.
As part of a larger study examining trauma exposure among women, 88 undergraduate women who reported experiencing a criterion A traumatic event on the Life Events Checklist as per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (Weathers et al., 2013) participated in the present study. The mean age was 19.4 years (SD = 3.3) and participants primarily self-identified as white (60.2%), Latino (20.5%), black (8.0%), or multi-racial (8.0%). The most commonly reported exposure to a traumatic event involved sexual trauma (39.8% of sample). Participants completed self-report measures assessing posttraumatic stress symptoms, trait anxiety, and disgust proneness (all Cronbach’s αs > .80). Participants then attended an in-person session where executive attention was assessed using Fan et al.’s (2002) Attention Network Test.
As predicted, the interaction between executive attention with trait anxiety (ΔR2 = .05, p = .029) and disgust proneness (ΔR2 = .08, p = .009) accounted for unique variance in hyperarousal symptom scores beyond the main effects. Simple effects indicated that trait anxiety (partial r = .35, p = .001) and disgust proneness (partial r = .24, p = .029) were positively associated with hyperarousal symptoms at low levels of executive attention. At high levels of executive attention, trait anxiety (partial r = .02, p = .888) and disgust proneness (partial r = -.08, p = .457) were not associated with hyperarousal symptoms. Study results provide further indication that executive attention is important for understanding when individual difference variables relate to hyperarousal symptoms following trauma exposure.
Kelsi Clayson– Baylor University
Christine Jin– Baylor University
Taylor Phillips– Baylor University
Alyssa Harrott– Baylor University
Sara Dolan– Baylor University
Joseph Bardeen– Auburn University
Thomas Fergus– Assistant Professor, Baylor University, Waco, Texas