Project - Getting stuck daydreaming: the role of cognitive flexibility in anxiety while mind-wandering
Background and Objective
High levels of anxiety are often associated with impairments in cognitive flexibility. Individuals with high levels of trait anxiety also have distinct thought profiles, often resulting in more repetitive negative mind-wandering. This research examined the potential role of cognitive flexibility in explaining the relationship of off-task thought (mind-wandering) profiles in anxiety.
This project (2020-2023) will continue to run for the next couple of years funded as my PhD project. We will aim to inform the therapeutic process with the findings to come.
Research Project Description
Study 1: Scoping Study—Is there a relationship there?
Method: Participants comprised university students (N=268). The participants were assessed on several different questionnaires online. This included assessments of anxiety, worry, depression, cognitive flexibility and trait mind-wandering.
Results: It was found that as trait anxiety increased, there was a significant positive association with worry and depression. It was also found that as anxiety increased, mind-wanderings were more negative and more frequent. However, there were no significant differences in the complexity or directedness of the mind wandering. Further, trait anxiety scores significantly predicted a significant decrease of 41.8% in cognitive flexibility.
Conclusions: This study provides a comprehensive investigation of profiles of anxiety and mind wandering assessed dimensionally across anxiety. Further, these findings highlight the role that cognitive flexibility plays in anxiety.
Study 2: The frequency and severity of maladaptive maladaptive in anxiety
Rationale: Building on the associations found in the online study, I currently am conducting an objective measurement of these same traits. I am assessing the severity and frequency of maladaptive forms of mind-wandering using validated tasks of deliberate and spontaneous cognition to determine how these processes vary according to individual differences in trait anxiety.
Method: Participants are pre-screened based on individual differences in trait anxiety levels.
Spontaneous expressions of mind-wandering are assessed using the Shapes Expectations task – a validated tool of mind wandering using an experience-sampling paradigm in conditions of minimal cognitive demand. Responses are coded for temporal context, emotional valence, and adaptive value. Finally, questionnaires assessing the self-reported anxiety, cognitive flexibility and trait mind-wandering are administered to participants.
Outcomes: Establish a basic understanding of the prevalence and content of intentional and unintentional cognition and their association with subjective reports of mind-wandering in anxiety-prone participants. This will also inform the underlying mechanisms potentially driving group differences in off-task cognition.
Study 3: Emotional arousal in future-oriented thinking in anxiety
Rationale: Building on my experience using physiological measures of emotional arousal, I will capture changes in heart rate (HR) and galvanic skin response (GSR) in response to the emotional valence of mind-wandering in anxiety populations.
Method: Investigate the content and emotional valence of the future thinking using a novel thought-sampling paradigm developed by international collaborator Jessica Andrews-Hanna (University of Tucson, Arizona). This paradigm requires participants to chain different thoughts in an associative manner, commencing from an initial “seed” word. The “seed” will be manipulated according to valence (i.e. neutral, positive, negative) and temporal context (past, present, future) to establish the modulating role of these factors on maladaptive expressions of cognition in anxiety. This will be done in high and low stress conditions.
We will also collect physiological data (HR, GSR) to assess objective changes in stress.
Outcomes: Determining how the contents of mind-wandering is affected by the emotional valence of external triggers (i.e., the seed word) and the individual’s internal (i.e., physiological arousal) state.
Study 4: Developing novel intervention strategies for maladaptive future thoughts
Rationale: Assess the feasibility of providing anxiety populations with guided interventions that target the key mechanisms potentiating maladaptive expressions of future thinking.
Method: We will manipulate the content/outcome of generated events and guide the participant through an alternative (typically positive) scenario. Assessments of physiological arousal (HR, GSR) and anxiety (both state and trait) will be conducted. Following this, feedback will be provided to each participant, with tailored guidelines on how to implement changes to decrease anxiety symptoms.