A Little Goes a Long Way: Low Working Memory Load Is Associated with Optimal Distractor Inhibition and Increased Vagal Control under Anxiety
Spangler, Derek P.
Friedman, Bruce H.
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Anxiety impairs both inhibition of distraction and attentional focus. It is unclear whether these impairments are reduced or exacerbated when loading working memory with nonaffective information. Cardiac vagal control has been related to top–down regulation of anxiety; therefore, vagal control may reflect load-related inhibition of distraction under anxiety. The present study examined whether: (1) the enhancing and impairing effects of load on inhibition exist together in a non-linear function, (2) there is a similar association between inhibition and concurrent vagal control under anxiety. During anxiogenic threatof- noise, 116 subjects maintained a digit series of varying lengths (0, 2, 4, and 6 digits) while completing a visual flanker task. The task was broken into four blocks, with a baseline period preceding each. Electrocardiography was acquired throughout to quantify vagal control as high-frequency heart rate variability (HRV). There were significant quadratic relations of working memory load to flanker performance and to HRV, but no associations between HRV and performance. Results indicate that low load was associated with relatively better inhibition and increased HRV. These findings suggest that attentional performance under anxiety depends on the availability of working memory resources, which might be reflected by vagal control. These results have implications for treating anxiety disorders, in which regulation of anxiety can be optimized for attentional focus.