People with higher trait anxiety tend to have a harder time creating detailed mental simulations, according to new research published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
“My research has convinced me that our capacity to imagine possible personal events critically depends on our capacity to remember our personal past,” said study author Felipe De Brigard, an associate professor at Duke University and principal investigator at the Imagination and Modal Cognition Lab.
“Some of those imagined episodes concern alternative ways past personal events could have occurred, but didn’t. These episodic counterfactual thoughts, as we term them, are common and usually beneficial, in that they enable us to rehearse possible scenarios to improve future performance.”
“However, in individuals with anxiety, counterfactual thinking could be debilitating, leading to increased worry and incapacitating rumination,” the researcher explained. “Characterizing differences in the experience of episodic counterfactual thinking along different levels of anxiety seemed like a good first step to understand why such thoughts are beneficial for some individuals, while debilitating for others.”
In the study, 96 participants completed a trait anxiety questionnaire and were then asked to write about regretful autobiographical memories that occurred within the past 5 years. They were also asked to created better or worse counterfactual alternatives to these events.
Participants with greater anxiety tended to use a greater number of negative emotional words when recalling regretful autobiographical memories. Their recollections also tended to include fewer concrete details, “suggesting that their memories are retrieved with less specificity than their lower-anxious peers,” the researchers said.
Anxious participants also tended to generate fewer concrete details and reported having a worse understanding of how they might have felt when asked to think about a way in which the regretful event could have gone better. Participants with higher anxiety were also less likely to believe that this type of event could have occurred.
The findings indicate “that individuals with higher levels of anxiety tend to generate more negative episodic counterfactual simulations, and that such mental simulations are not as concrete and detailed as compared to individuals with lower levels of anxiety,” De Brigard told PsyPost. “Additionally, as your anxiety levels increase, you tend to think that it is less likely that a past negative event could have turned out better.”
The study examined general trait anxiety, a personality characteristic that describes a person’s proneness to fear, tension, and worry. “These are all sub-clinical levels of anxiety,” De Brigard noted. “Whether these findings replicate in clinical levels is yet to be determined.”
The study, “Phenomenology of counterfactual thinking is dampened in anxious individuals“, was authored by Natasha Parikh, Kevin S. LaBar, and Felipe De Brigard.