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Research Overview

Proactive Cognitive Control Training Limits Anxious Arousal Under Stress

Previous research has shown that difficulty controlling one’s attention precedes periods of time when people feel anxious. In two studies, Jeffrey Birk, Andrew Rogers, Anoushka Shahane, and Heather Urry examined whether anxious people could be trained to control their attention proactively (i.e., in advance of taking goal-related action) and whether such training would reduce the rise of anxiety during stress.

In Study 1, 96 high trait-anxious participants completed a proactive or reactive training followed by the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) with measurement of subjective anxiety, heart rate, and skin conductance level (SCL). In Study 2, 59 high trait-anxious participants completed a proactive or no-instruction training for four days and then completed the TSST with the measures listed above.

For the high-dose training of Study 2 (see figure below) but not the low-dose training of Study 1, stress-related increases in subjective anxiety and heart rate were reduced for the proactive relative to the control group. Sympathetically mediated SCL increases did not differ by group in either study.

These results suggest that exercising proactive cognitive control leverages the power of the parasympathetic nervous system to inhibit the escalation of anxious arousal during stress. Training of this sort may be a nice addition to treatments that seek to alleviate anxiety.

Cognitive Control Training

The figure above shows the effects of training group (proactive, no-training) on state anxiety measures from the Day-4 session in Study 2. The three panels represent (from left to right): a) self-reported total state anxiety at the three time points, b) mean heart rate during the tasks, and c) mean skin conductance level during the tasks. STICSA = State-Trait Inventory of Cognitive and Somatic Anxiety. TSST = Trier Social Stress Test. bpm = beats per minute. µS = microSiemens.