Preconscious processing biases predict emotional reactivity to stress.
Fox E., Cahill S., Zougkou K.
BACKGROUND: Anxiety vulnerability is associated with biases in attention: a tendency to selectively process negative relative to neutral or positive information. It is not clear whether this bias is: 1) related to the physiological response to stressful events, and 2) causally related to the development of anxiety disorders. METHODS: We tested the predictive value of both preconscious and conscious attention biases in a prospective study of stress reactivity in a nonclinical sample. One hundred four male participants were assessed at baseline and then again 4 months (n = 82) and 8 months later (n = 70). Salivary cortisol and self-report measures were obtained at the baseline testing session in addition to measures of biased attention. Subsequent emotional reactivity was assessed by means of salivary cortisol and self-reported state-anxiety responses during a laboratory-based stressor (4 months later) as well as during a real-life stressor 8 months later (i.e., examination period). RESULTS: Regression analyses indicated that a preconscious negative processing bias was the best predictor of the cortisol response to stressful events. Importantly, a measure of selective processing provided a better indicator of subsequent emotional reactivity than self-report measures of neuroticism, trait-anxiety, and extraversion. CONCLUSIONS: These results suggest that preconscious biases toward negative material play a causal role in heightened anxiety vulnerability. Our results illustrate the potential utility of preconscious biases in attention in providing an early marker of anxiety vulnerability and a potential target for treatment intervention.