Exploring the function of selective attention and hypervigilance for threat in anxiety

Richards, HJ, Benson, Valerie orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-0351-4563, Donnelly, N and Hadwin, JA (2014) Exploring the function of selective attention and hypervigilance for threat in anxiety. Clinical Psychology Review, 34 (1). pp. 1-13. ISSN 0272-7358

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Official URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.10.006


Theoretical frameworks of anxiety propose that attentional biases to threat-related stimuli cause or maintain anxious states. The current paper draws on theoretical frameworks and key empirical studies to outline the distinctive attentional processes highlighted as being important in understanding anxiety. We develop a conceptual framework to make a distinction between two attentional biases: selective attention to threat and hypervigilance for threat. We suggest that these biases each have a different purpose and can account for the typical patterns of facilitated and impaired attention evident in anxious individuals. The framework is novel in its specification of the eye movement behavior associated with these attentional biases. We highlight that selective attention involves narrowing overt attention onto threat to ensure that these stimuli receive processing priority, leading to rapid engagement with task-relevant threat and delayed disengagement from task-irrelevant threat. We show that hypervigilance operates in the presence and absence of threat and involves monitoring for potential dangers via attentional broadening or excessive scanning of the environment with numerous eye movements, leading to improved threat detection and increased distraction from task-irrelevant threat. We conclude that future research could usefully employ eye movement measures to more clearly understand the diverse roles of attention in anxiety.

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