People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) worry chronically and excessively about many things including their relationships with others, finances, their performance at work, and common situations, like getting to appointments on time or going to an unfamiliar place for the first time. A growing body of research indicates that individuals with GAD (vs. non-anxious people) also tend to feel their emotions more intensely. When deeply absorbed in emotions like sadness, anger, or fear, individuals with GAD become distressed and respond with worry to manage and avoid threatening emotions. Because worry is made up of a lot of self-talk (for example, “what if something bad happens? What will become of me?”), it’s been theorized that these verbalizations actually dampen or “short circuit” the physiological experience of emotion.

Since worry supposedly reduces the intensity of emotions, over time worriers should feel their emotions less intensely. Yet, most individuals with GAD find it very difficult to ignore emotional thoughts and images. It seems the more people worry, the more their emotional discomfort intensifies. Although emotion dysregulation is well studied among worriers, it is unclear how worry causes this dysregulation. To understand how the act of worrying interferes with the healthy experience of emotions, researchers have started to examine the role of attention at the brain level. The brain naturally emits electrical signals at the scalp which can be detected through noninvasive tools such as custom fitted head caps. Once on, a head cap records an individual’s brain signals, usually as they are performing a task or viewing a picture. These recordings are then displayed on a screen, much like a heart monitor displays a heart rate (click here for more information). The late positive potential is a specific electrical brain signal that shows the degree to which one is paying attention to emotional words, faces, or pictures: the larger the size of the signal, the greater the attention. Past research has shown that emotion areas of the brain are extremely active in individuals with GAD. Hence, scientists are starting to use the late positive potential to specify the role of attention for individuals with emotional difficulties.

In a study published in 2015, researchers from Binghamton University investigated whether differences in the tendency to worry related to differences in attention to emotional versus neutral images in 21 female undergraduate students. Participants first completed questionnaires to assess the tendency to worry. Participants were then fitted with a custom head cap to measure late positive potentials. Once fitted with a cap, participants viewed a series of positive, neutral, sad, and threatening pictures. The results showed that for all participants, late positive potentials were larger in response to sad and threatening images and smaller in response to positive and neutral images. However, individuals with higher (vs. lower) levels of worry showed larger late positive potentials in response to positive, sad, and threatening images. These findings suggest that although emotional information is salient to everyone, worriers are especially likely to become absorbed in emotional content.

Results from this study suggest that elevated attention to emotional content might put an individual at risk for future worry and anxiety. Sustained attention to emotional words and images likely leads to more worry as individuals become distressed and seek to avoid intense feelings. More research is needed to determine whether greater attention to emotional stimuli, at the neural level, distinguishes people at risk for GAD.