This post was contributed by Prof Nazanin Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. Here, Prof Derakhshan describes her most recent study into how our cognitive flexibility can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety
Anxiety can be a debilitative emotion that can adversely affect our performance. For example, it is common for individuals with high levels of anxiety to worry excessively about a variety of issues ranging from their performance on upcoming examinations, job interviews, attending meetings, and giving talks to multi-tasking and managing everyday activities efficiently.
According to the WHO (World Health Organisation) anxiety (and depression) will be the biggest cause of disability worldwide by 2025. People with high anxiety frequently report that they have difficulty concentrating on tasks that need undivided attention and are easily distracted. It goes without saying that the implications of anxiety’s effects on our everyday activities as well as on the challenging tasks demanding our attention are vast.
Unfortunately, anxious individuals remain at a disadvantage of getting stuck in a viral chain of worries and over-thinking, consequently needing to invest more effort as compensation to their worries in getting tasks done (see Berggren & Derakshan, 2013, for a review).
How can we explain the nature of the relationship between anxiety and performance?
In a theoretical breakthrough, we have proposed earlier (see Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo, 2007; Derakshan & Eysenck, 2009) that a central mechanism by which anxiety impairs performance is via its adverse effects on attentional control. Attentional control is an important function of our working memory, a system that regulates incoming information and helps with temporary storage of information.
Attentional control or cognitive flexibility directs our attention towards what is relevant and away from what is irrelevant. Attentional control is thus a vital ingredient of our lives, it helps us be cognitively flexible, concentrate on tasks and resist distracting thoughts/information when we need to. When we have poor attentional control we become inefficient and can do badly in tasks; we can’t keep worries at bay, and get trapped in cycles of over-thinking that can hold us back from performing well. There is now substantial evidence to support the prediction that anxiety impairs performance via its impact on attentional control (see Berggren et al., 2013).
How can we reduce the effects of anxiety on performance?
If attentional control is a causal mechanism that can explain anxiety’s effects on performance then it can be trained and boosted to protect against the effects of anxiety on performance. In the current study, which will be published in the journal Biological Psychology, we asked participants with a high anxiety disposition to train on an adaptive cognitive task for a period of 15 days over three weeks, for half an hour every day, and all training was performed online.
The special thing about the training protocol is the adaptive nature of the task that increases and decreases in difficulty based on participant performance levels. Elsewhere, we have shown that training on this task improves attentional control in subclinical depression (see Owens, Koster & Derakshan, 2013; see also our BBCR4 programme on How to Have a Better Brain.
In the current study, we assessed participants’ levels of attentional control using a number of tasks measuring distractibility (e.g. a flanker task that was performed under stressful and non-stressful conditions), an antisaccade task measuring inhibition of threatening faces and resting state attentional control using electrophysiological measures. Participants completed these tasks before and after the intervention. We also had a control group who performed a non-adaptive version of the training.
Did training improve attentional control?
Our results showed that those undergoing adaptive training compared with the control group showed greater transferability of training related gains onto attentional control measures. Specifically, they were better at inhibiting distractors in the flanker task, and this superiority was especially apparent when stressed, i.e. they could exercise attentional control much better than the control group when they were under stress.
The training group also had better resting state attentional control compared with the control group. Importantly, engagement with training as shown by improvement on the training task, from first to last day of training, correlated with reductions in anxiety levels after the intervention relative to before the intervention. This meant that those who improved more on the training task had lower levels of anxiety vulnerability after training.
Why are the results of the current study important?
The most important message here is that attentional control can be trained with transferrable effects on unrelated tasks measuring relevant cognitive functions such as distractibility, inhibition, and concentration in individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety. Furthermore, our findings showed that improving attentional control can reduce anxiety in individuals with an anxious predisposition.
They also attest to the causal mechanism of attentional control protecting against anxiety vulnerability especially under stress. The implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science. Targeting and training working memory using adaptive tasks that exercise attentional control holds the potential to protect against longer term under-achievement in anxious pupils. It can also protect against the development of clinical anxiety which can be debilitative to the individual.
How can the current study be extended?
There are a few ways in which future research can build upon the current findings. First, if attentional control training shows promise to increase processing efficiency then it can be used as an adjunct to traditional therapies such as mindfulness and CBT that rely on pre-frontal functions such as concentration and attention focus.
Second, it is essential to examine the sustainability of the effects of adaptive cognitive training on performance and anxiety vulnerability and get an indication of how training effects consolidate with the environment over time. How are behaviours changed? Finally, it seems essential from a clinical point of view to look at how training can impact on a person’s quality of life and levels of resilience throughout time.
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