The Anxious Mind Under Threat - Examining the interplay between anxiety, working memory and emotion regulation as determinants of academic performance

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Experimental Psychology


Elevated levels of anxiety are associated with poor educational outcomes. Anxiety disorders (ADs) are common in adolescents with prevalence rates of 10% to 30% suggested by recent epidemiological studies. ADs result in significant impairment in psychosocial and academic functioning, have a persistent course into adulthood and have high comorbidity with other psychiatric disorders.

Cognitive differences are implicated in anxious psychopathology. Anxiety is thought to reduce working memory capacity (WMC) by acting as a distractor, drawing cognitive resources away from task-relevant processes. Working memory (WM) refers to the ability to hold information in mind, in spite of potential distraction, to support goal-directed behaviour and is a reliable indicator of academic achievement and broader cognitive functioning. Cognitive interference theories predict that individuals with high anxiety perform worse on cognitive tasks, particularly when these are cognitively demanding, which impacts academic performance. Empirical findings are mixed and suggest these theories provide an oversimplified account of cognitive processing in anxiety.

Recent studies serve to extend these theories. Some findings suggest that anxiety in typically developing (TD) individuals, disrupts WM; but increasing task complexity diverts attention from anxiety, improving performance. Further work suggests this interaction is mediated by WMC - high anxious individuals with high-WMC perform better on cognitive tests than their low-WMC counterparts. It is also argued that anxiety differentially disrupts WM in TD and anxious individuals. Under anxiety-provoking conditions, the cognitive test performance of anxious adults was impaired regardless of task complexity whereas healthy controls' performance was impaired during less complex tasks and facilitated during more complex tasks.

Alongside these cognitive processing differences, poor choice and implementation of emotion regulation (ER) is typical in ADs. ER refers to the capacity to influence or manage the intensity and expression of emotions to support goal-directed behaviour and is related to academic achievement. The availability (WMC) and selective use (attention control) of cognitive resources influence the choice and efficacy of ER strategies (e.g. rumination, reappraisal). Adaptive functioning relies on flexible ER. In adult anxiety, worry tends to be rehearsed and used as a coping strategy, which may influence flexibility. Little empirical research has investigated ER choice, although emerging conceptual frameworks suggest a role for cognitive, emotional and motivational factors.

Both WM and ER influence academic and psychosocial outcomes, yet understanding of how they interact to predict these outcomes is limited. To the applicant's knowledge, this will be the first study to investigate the interaction between WM, task complexity and cognitive test performance in TD and anxious adolescents under ecologically valid anxiety-provoking conditions. It is also believed to be the first study to examine the interaction between choice of ER strategy and levels of anxiety in this population, as mediated by WMC and attention control. WM and ER training are being investigated as potential treatments for anxiety, but in the absence of a clear theoretical framework. This study seeks to address the aforementioned limitations.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2094652 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2018 01/10/2022 Meg Attwood