Sonia J Bishop, in an article in Nature Neuroscience, makes the case that trait anxiety (i.e. stable ongoing anxiety tendencies not related to a specific sudden threat) may be characterized by impaired recruitment of prefrontal mechanisms that are critical to the active control of attention when the task at hand does not fully govern the allocation of attention. She proposes that this deficit does not arise as a result of current or state levels of anxiety, but instead reflects an underlying trait characteristic that influences attentional processing regardless of the presence or absence of threat-related stimuli. This may interact with state anxiety influences on subcortical threat detection mechanisms to account for the threat-related attentional biases associated with clinical anxiety. It may also account for observations that anxious individuals show deficits across a range of non-affective tasks that place demands on attentional or cognitive control. Here is her abstract:
Many neurocognitive models of anxiety emphasize the importance of a hyper-responsive threat-detection system centered on the amygdala, with recent accounts incorporating a role for prefrontal mechanisms in regulating attention to threat. Here we investigated whether trait anxiety is associated with a much broader dysregulation of attentional control. Volunteers performed a response-conflict task under conditions that posed high or low demands on attention. High trait-anxious individuals showed reduced prefrontal activity and slower target identification in response to processing competition when the task did not fully occupy attentional resources. The relationship between trait anxiety and prefrontal recruitment remained after controlling for state anxiety. These findings indicate that trait anxiety is linked to impoverished recruitment of prefrontal attentional control mechanisms to inhibit distractor processing even when threat-related stimuli are absent. Notably, this deficit was observed when ongoing task-related demands on attention were low, potentially explaining the day-to-day difficulties in concentration that are associated with clinical anxiety.