Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a chronic condition characterized by excessive and ‘all-consuming’ worry that occurs more often than not. When people with GAD worry, this triggers a series of “what if” questions and thoughts about worst-case scenarios. People with GAD tend to report that they experience difficulty paying attention to other things when they are in the midst of worrying. According to some researchers, this ‘all-consuming’ worry competes with working memory, a mental resource that plays a role in our capacity to regulate or control the way we pay attention. When working memory resources are depleted, this contributes to the sensation that one cannot concentrate.

People vary in their attentional control, but individuals with GAD tend to have lower attentional control and find it difficult to disengage from worrying (even in circumstances where it is important to do so, such as when studying for an exam, or engaging in a conversation that requires one not to “check out”). In contrast, non-anxious individuals tend to have greater attentional control and are better able to disengage from worrying. Although this difference in attention control between people with GAD and people low in worry and anxiety has been observed in many studies, a recent investigation suggests that this picture is not so simple.

In a 2014 study, researchers from San Diego State University and the University of California recruited 30 individuals diagnosed with GAD and a comparison group of people low in worry and anxiety. Participants completed the Attention Network Task (ANT), a computerized task designed to assess attentional control. Quicker and accurate responses on this task reflect greater attentional control. Participants completed the ANT twice: once under “low load” and once under “high load.” In the low load condition, participants had to count backward from 100 by 1s while completing the ANT. In the high load condition, participants counted backwards from 100 by 3s while completing the ANT, making this a more challenging task.

The results of the study were surprising. It turned out that under the high load condition, individuals with GAD showed much greater attentional control than did participants without an anxiety disorder. In other words, individuals with GAD were able to concentrate on the ANT even though they were simultaneously engaging in the difficult task of counting backward by 3s. Based on other research to date, the opposite would have been expected – that people with GAD would perform worse on the attention task, especially under high load, because supposedly their working memory is already taxed due to chronic worrying. However, the researchers explained that when individuals with GAD engage in a task that demands a lot of working memory resources, this may actually make it possible for them to pull away from their worry and redirect their focus on the task at hand. Indeed, many individuals with GAD report trying to distract themselves to escape their worry. So, it may be that interventions designed to compete for the same working memory resources that worry consumes are actually effective for GAD.