Individual differences in the impact of attentional bias training on cardiovascular responses to stress
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Introduction. The present research examines the effect of threat-related attentional bias - the tendency to direct attention towards information in the environment that is threatening or negative -on anxiety responses to stress. Three methodological refinements were incorporated to help advance understanding of the effects of threat-related attentional bias on anxiety responses when exposed to stress. Firstly, attentional bias for threat-related information was experimentally manipulated prior to stress exposure in order to examine the direction of the relationship between threat-related attentional bias and anxiety responding to stress. Secondly, physiological indices of anxiety, in the form of cardiovascular parameters, were employed to provide objective measurement of anxiety responses to stress, thereby addressing the existing reliance in the literature on subjective measures of anxiety (i.e., self-report measures). Thirdly, individual differences in personality were examined in order to assess the influence, if any, of individual temperaments on the adoption of an attentional bias and on subsequent anxiety responding when presented with a stress task. Methods. Three empirical studies are reported. In a sample of 77 female college students, Study 1 examined the influence of an attentional bias intervention that trained attention either towards or away from threatening linguistic stimuli on anxiety responses to a stress task, and considered the role of individual differences in personality on this effect. In Study 2, in order to address limitations in ecological validity associated with linguistic stimuli, a sample of 68 female college students completed an attention training protocol involving emotionally positive and emotionally threatening photorealistic facial stimuli before completing a standard stress task. In Study 3, 80 female college students were presented with an attention training protocol similar to that employed in Study 1 but in which the linguistic stimuli were replaced with photorealistic facial stimuli. Results. Study 1 indicated that attentional bias manipulation causally affected physiological indices of anxiety responding to stress. Participants with high neuroticism who completed the negative training intervention and participants with low neuroticism who completed the anti-negative training intervention showed increased systolic blood pressure responding to stress. When neuroticism was replaced with psychoticism in the analyses, the same pattern of findings was evident. In Study 2, priming participants with emotionally threatening facial images causally affected their subsequent anxiety response to stress. Individual differences in psychoticism, but not neuroticism, determined the precise nature of these effects. In Study 3, there was no effect of training on anxiety responses to stress but participants¿ responses to the protocol in general were again dependent on individual differences in personality. A vascular hemodynamic response profile was evident for participants with high neuroticism in response to the stress task and for participants with high psychoticism at the post-intervention time point prior to the stressor. Conclusions. The findings affirm cognitive approaches to anxiety which suggest that an attentional bias for threat-related information is a causal factor in the experience of exaggerated anxiety responding to stress. Anxiety responding to stress in those who were trained to attend towards threatening information as compared to those trained to direct their attention away from threatening information was only seen to differ when both individual differences in personality and physiological variables were considered. As such, between-group differences in anxiety were evident for physiological but not for self-report measures of anxiety and were contingent on individual differences in personality. These findings highlight the importance of individual differences and physiological variables in establishing the relationship between threat-related attentional bias and exaggerated anxiety responding to stress.
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