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Modulating effect of worry on autonomic flexibility

Modulating effect of worry on autonomic flexibility

Kristen Frosio


Abnormal allocation of attention toward threatening or mood congruent stimuli is thought to play a central role in affective disorders (Mogg & Bradley, 2005). Recent literature suggests that evaluating attention to motivationally salient or emotional stimuli may facilitate our understanding of this biased information processing (Hajcak & Olvet, 2008). The Late Positive Potential (LPP) is a neural indicator of attentional processing of emotional stimuli (Foti & Hajcak, 2008; Hajcak, Moser, & Simons, 2006). LPP amplitude is increased when viewing motivationally salient stimuli compared to neutral stimuli (Weimberg & Hajcak, 2010). Another physiological parameter linked to emotional processing is respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA; Porges, 1995). RSA is a non-invasive measure of cardiac vagal control (Berntson et al., 1997). Although RSA has generated a lot of interest in its relationship with affective disorders, little research has examined whether vagal control can predict dynamic allocation of attention. The goal of the current study was to 1) evaluate whether RSA predicts ERP indices of motivated attention, 2) evaluate whether this relationship would remain while controlling for worry.

Thirty-eight participants were recruited from a large Midwestern university with a mean age of 19 (SD = 1.8); 58% of the sample was female (N = 22). Participants completed an online version of the PSWQ (PSWQ; Meyer et al., 1990) and demographics questionnaire. Participants then completed a cued image viewing task while their EEG and ECG were recorded, in order to derive the LPP and RSA measures, respectively. Participants were told to pay attention to the images, because their memory for each picture would be tested later. Trials included viewing threatening and neutral stimuli individually.

Results indicated significant correlations between RSA and the LPP for both threat (r = -.41) and neutral (r = -.32) stimuli, such that as RSA decreased (indicating increased arousal) LPP amplitude for both threat and neutral stimuli increased. Multiple regression analysis, controlling for worry symptoms, showed the model predicting attention to threatening stimuli was significant (F(1,36) = 4.7, p = .011, R2 = .22), such that RSA significantly predicted LPP amplitude for threat-relevant stimuli (β = .41, p = .011). RSA (β = .32, p = .042) and worry (β = .38, p = .015) combined significantly predicted LPP amplitude for neutral stimuli (F(1,36) = 5.5, p = .011, R2 = .25).

Overall, results suggested that RSA was related to LPP amplitude for both threat and neutral images. RSA significantly predicted LPP amplitude for threat stimuli only. RSA and worry combined predicted LPP amplitude in processing neutral stimuli. These findings suggest that measures of physiological arousal may be useful in understanding attentional processing of affective and neutral stimuli. Specifically, worry may play a significant role in modulating autonomic flexibility related to attentional processing of neutral stimuli. Consistent with the Contrast Avoidance model of worry (Llera & Newman, 2010), worrying may serve to activate autonomic arousal and subsequent processing of neutral stimuli in order to avoid a stark contrast in negative affective responding. Moreover, worry may contribute to the consequences of fear overgeneralization through biasing attentional processing. Future research should evaluate the relationship between other physiological markers of anxiety and neural indicators of attention.