SUSTAINED EMOTIONAL PROCESSING IN INDIVIDUALS SUFFERING FROM CHRONIC WORRY SYMPTOMS

Open Access
Author:
Oathes, Desmond
Graduate Program:
Psychology
Degree:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Dissertation
Date of Defense:
June 05, 2006
Committee Members:
  • William Ray, Committee Chair
  • Thomas D Borkovec, Committee Member
  • Semyon Slobounov, Committee Member
  • Robert M Stern, Committee Member
Keywords:
  • worry
  • emotional processing
  • pupil
  • psychophysiology
  • emotion
  • anxiety
Abstract:
Previous findings indicate that worriers avoid particularly upsetting thoughts by worrying and that they have difficulties understanding their own emotions and those of others. At the same time, there is behavioral evidence that worriers are especially attuned to certain distressing emotional stimuli and have difficulty turning off negative emotions once they are initiated. Worriers also report that they express negative emotion readily even though they fear both depressive and anxious experiences. The present study used a variety of emotional stimuli including personally generated relevant materials, normative stimuli from published lists of emotional material, both images and words, and four emotional categories of stimuli (positive, negative, neutral, and threat) to thoroughly examine emotional processing in chronic worriers. Individuals scoring high on a measure of chronic uncontrollable worry (Penn State Worry Questionnaire) were compared to non-worriers (low scorers) on tasks that required valence categorization of emotional stimuli and also on interleaved Stroop color word identification trials to monitor extended effects of emotional stimuli on subsequent cognitive processing. Pupil diameter was assessed as a measure of processing load/arousal. Worriers had larger anticipatory pupil diameters before emotional information was presented to them but had smaller pupils for personally relevant negative information and smaller sustained diameters following emotional material compared to non-worriers. With threatening emotional words, however, worriers had larger sustained pupil sizes relative to the control group. Correlations with self-report symptom scales indicate an independent role for chronic worry symptoms in explaining pupil diameter perseveration above and beyond trait anxiety, depressive rumination, and other symptoms. A model of both emotional avoidance and hypervigilance to threat is supported by the findings with qualifiers for task complexity, temporal dynamics of emotional response, relevance of stimuli, and type of emotional content presented.