Stout, D. M., Shackman, A. J., Johnson, J. S. & Larson, C. L. (2015). Worry is associated with impaired gating of threat from working memory. Emotion, 15, 6-11.
Dispositional anxiety is a well-established risk factor for the development of anxiety and other emotional disorders. These disorders are common, debilitating, and challenging to treat, pointing to the need to understand the more elementary neurocognitive mechanisms that confer elevated risk. Importantly, many of the maladaptive behaviors characteristic of anxiety, such as worry, occur when threat is absent. This raises the possibility that worry reflects difficulties gating threat-related information from working memory—a limited capacity workspace that supports the maintenance, recall, and manipulation of information—and facilitates goal-directed thoughts and actions. Here, we tested, for the first time, whether trait-like individual differences in worry, a key facet of the anxious phenotype, reflect difficulties gating threat and neutral-related distracters from working memory. Results indicated that both dispositional worry and anxiety individually predicted the combined filtering cost of threat and neutral distracters. Importantly, worry was associated with inefficient filtering of threat-related, but not neutral, distracters from working memory. In contrast, dispositional anxiety was related to a similar level of threat and neutral filtering cost. Furthermore, dispositional anxiety’s relationship to filtering of threat was predominantly driven by differences in worry. These results suggest that the propensity to worry is characterized by a failure to gate task-irrelevant threat from working memory. These results provide a framework for understanding the mechanisms underlying chronic worry and, more broadly, the cognitive architecture of dispositional anxiety.