Category: Adult Anxiety
Background: Perseverative thought (PT; also called negative repetitive thought) is a thinking style that is repetitive, uncontrollable, and often impairing and distressing. Two forms of PT commonly seen in psychopathology are worry and rumination. Cognitive models of PT propose that poor attentional control and impairment of executive functions (i.e., inhibition and shifting) are both causes and consequences of high trait worry. In support of these models, a number of studies have demonstrated relationships between trait worry, attentional control and executive function impairments. However, few have looked at the effect of state worry on attentional control and executive functions.
Method: In the current study, participants (N = 60) with varying levels of trait worry and self-reported attentional control completed a novel paradigm that assessed inhibition and lapses of attention using a modified Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART) following a shift from internally focused attention (worry induction) versus an externally focused attention control condition (auditory task).
Results: Poorer self-reported attentional control was associated with more commission errors (poorer inhibition) after worry blocks (r = -.32, p = .026) but not after external attention blocks (r = -.21, p = .139). The relationship between poor attentional control and more errors of comission remained significant after controlling for trait worry, r = -.30, p = .036. Self-reported attentional control was not associated with lapses of attention (omission errors) after worry (r = -.05, p = .735); however, high self-reported trait rumination (Ruminative Reflection Scale; r = .36, p = .011) and depression (DASS21; r = .28, p = .049) scores predicted more omission errors after worry.
Discussion: These results indicate that poorer trait attentional control is associated with response inhibition impairment specifically in the context of active (state) worry. In contrast, depression symptoms and trait rumination may be more related to general lapses in attention rather than inhibition impairment. These findings are consistent with cognitive models of PT that state high worry (trait and state) impair inhibition and highlight the importance of addressing attentional control in the context of worry and psychopathology.