Category: Cognitive Science / Cognitive Processes


Impaired Internal-to-External Attention Shifting as a Mechanism of Uncontrollable Worry

Saturday, November 18
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Location: Aqua Salon C & D, Level 3, Aqua Level

Keywords: Worry | Cognitive Processes
Presentation Type: Symposium

Background: Uncontrollable worry is the core feature of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and has been experimentally and prospectively linked to increased anxiety and depression in both clinical and healthy samples.  The perception that worry is uncontrollable (i.e., hard to stop) is especially predictive of increased clinical severity. Currently, the cognitive mechanisms that underlie impaired disengagement from worry are poorly understood.  Identifying these mechanisms is a critical step toward developing treatments that directly target those mechanisms to improve control over worry.  We apply recent developments from the basic cognitive neuroscience of attention literature to test a novel potential mechanism of uncontrollable worry: impaired shifting between internally-directed and externally-directed attention. 

Method: Undergraduate participants with varying levels of trait worry (N = 64) completed a novel paradigm that assessed the ability to shift from internally-directed attention (worry) to externally-directed attention (sustained attention to response task; SART) and a control condition involving shifting between two types of external attention (an auditory task and the SART). SART performance is a widely-used measure of sustained attention and was used as a behavioral index of ability to shift attention away from internal (worry) and external (auditory) attention, respectively. 

Results: Higher trait worry predicted poorer SART performance (RT) after shifting from worry versus shifting from external attention (r = -.33, p = .018). Trait mindfulness moderated this relationship, such that higher trait mindfulness was associated with a reduced effect of trait worry on behavioral performance (F = 9.44, p = .004). Self-reported worry intrusions during the SART predicted more commission (r = .28, p = .048) but not omission (r = .11, p = .469) errors during the SART, indicating an additional role for impaired response inhibition.

Conclusion: These findings support and extend several theoretical models of cognitive control over worry and suggest several promising directions for the development of interventions.

Lauren S. Hallion

University of Pittsburgh


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Impaired Internal-to-External Attention Shifting as a Mechanism of Uncontrollable Worry

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