Cognitive load and emotional processing in generalized anxiety disorder: electrocortical evidence for increased distractibility. Academic Article uri icon


  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may be characterized by emotion regulation deficits attributable to an imbalance between top-down (i.e., goal-driven) and bottom-up (i.e., stimulus-driven) attention. In prior work, these attentional processes were examined by presenting unpleasant and neutral pictures within a working memory paradigm. The late positive potential (LPP) measured attention toward task-irrelevant pictures. Results from this prior work showed that working memory load reduced the LPP across participants; however, this effect was attenuated for individuals with greater self-reported state anxiety, suggesting reduced top-down control. In the current study, the same paradigm was used with 106 medication-free female participants-71 with GAD and 35 without GAD. Unpleasant pictures elicited larger LPPs, and working memory load reduced the picture-elicited LPP. Compared with healthy controls, participants with GAD showed large LPPs to unpleasant pictures presented under high working memory load. Self-reported symptoms of anhedonic depression were related to a reduced effect of working memory load on the LPP elicited by neutral pictures. These results indicate that individuals with GAD show less flexible modulation of attention when confronted with unpleasant stimuli. Furthermore, among those with GAD, anhedonic depression may broaden attentional deficits to neutral distracters.

published proceedings

  • J Abnorm Psychol

author list (cited authors)

  • MacNamara, A., & Proudfit, G. H.

citation count

  • 47

complete list of authors

  • MacNamara, Annmarie||Proudfit, Greg Hajcak

publication date

  • August 2014