Describing the interplay between anxiety and cognition: from impaired performance under low cognitive load to reduced anxiety under high load

Psychophysiology. 2012 Jun;49(6):842-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01358.x. Epub 2012 Feb 14.


Anxiety impairs the ability to think and concentrate, suggesting that the interaction between emotion and cognition may elucidate the debilitating nature of pathological anxiety. Using a verbal n-back task that parametrically modulated cognitive load, we explored the effect of experimentally induced anxiety on task performance and the startle reflex. Findings suggest there is a crucial inflection point between moderate and high cognitive load, where resources shift from anxious apprehension to focus on task demands. Specifically, we demonstrate that anxiety impairs performance under low load, but is reduced when subjects engage in a difficult task that occupies executive resources. We propose a two-component model of anxiety that describes a cognitive mechanism behind performance impairment and an automatic response that supports sustained anxiety-potentiated startle. Implications for therapeutic interventions and emotional pathology are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology
  • Anxiety / psychology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Electroshock
  • Fear / physiology
  • Fear / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychometrics
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reflex, Startle / physiology
  • Young Adult