Category: Adult Anxiety - GAD

PS9- #A11 - Self-Referential Processing Predicts Symptoms of GAD

Saturday, Nov 18
9:45 AM – 10:45 AM
Location: Indigo Ballroom CDGH, Level 2, Indigo Level

Keywords: Adult Anxiety | Cognitive Processes | College Students

The transition to university, although exciting, can be an extremely stressful phase in one’s life. The transition is often characterized by leaving existing support systems, entering a new social environment, and adapting to increased academic expectations and pressure. On top of this stress, young people entering university belong to the age range most at risk for developing mental illness, particularly an anxiety disorder (Pearson, Janz and Ali; 2013). In fact, nearly 1 in 6 university students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety (National College Health Assessment, 2015). Thus, it is vital to understand risk factors that increase symptoms of anxiety during this vulnerable period of transition. The current study examined whether self-referential processing may be one such risk factor. Self-referential processing indexes an individual’s underlying cognitive schemas and, thus, has been posited to be an important marker of vulnerability to mental health difficulties. Consistent with this formulation, negatively biased self-referential processing has been associated both concurrently and prospectively with increased symptoms of depression. To our knowledge, however, no study has examined the association between negatively biased self-referential processing and symptoms of anxiety. The current study examined, for the first time, the prospective effects of self-referential processing on changes in symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) across students’ first semester at university. Female undergraduate students (N = 118) completed the self-referential encoding task (SRET) at the start of their first semester of university, and they reported on their symptoms of anxiety at the beginning and end of the semester. As expected, higher levels of anxiety and depression at baseline predicted increased symptoms of anxiety over the course of the semester, R2 = .11, F(2,115) = 7.12, p = .001. Importantly, participants' performance on the SRET predicted change in symptoms of anxiety over and above baseline levels of anxiety and depression, R2change = .06, Fchange(2, 113) = 3.74,  p = .027. Specifically, more negatively biased self-referential processing was associated with increased symptoms of anxiety over the course of the semester. Our findings suggest that the construct of self-referential processing is relevant outside of depression. Specifically, these results suggest that individual differences in self-referential processing may be important in understanding why some individuals are at increased risk for developing heightened anxiety during times of stress. Thus, treatment aimed at reducing anxiety in university students could benefit from targeting self-referential processing.

Alison E. Tracy

Clinical Psychology Graduate Student
The University of British Columbia
North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Joelle LeMoult

Assistant Professor
University of British Columbia