Within-person increase in pathological worry predicts future depletion of unique executive functioning domains

Nur Hani Zainal, Michelle G. Newman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Background Affective neuroscience and scar theories propose that increased excessive worry, the hallmark symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), predicts future declines in executive functioning (EF). However, the preponderance of cross-sectional designs used to examine between-person chronic worry-EF relationships has blocked progress on understanding their potentially causal within-person associations. Accordingly, this study used bivariate dual latent change score (LCS) models to test whether within-person increased GAD severity might relate to future reduced EF. Methods Community-dwelling adults (N = 2581, 46 years on average, s.d. = 11.40, 54.71% female) were assessed for GAD symptom severity (Composite International Diagnostic Interview-Short Form) across three waves, spaced about 9 years apart. Three aspects of EF [inhibition, set-shifting, and mixing costs (MCs; a measure related to common EF)], were assessed with stop-and-go switch tasks. Participants responded to 20 normal and 20 reverse single-task block trials and 32 mixed-task switch block trials. EF tests were administered at time 2 (T2) and time 3 (T3), but not at time 1 (T1). Results After controlling for T1 depression, LCS models revealed that within-person increased T1-T2 GAD severity substantially predicted future reduced T2-T3 inhibition and set-shifting (both indexed by accuracy and latency), and MC (indexed by latency) with moderate-to-large effect sizes (|d| = 0.51-0.96). Conclusions Results largely support scar theories by offering preliminary within-person, naturalistic evidence that heightened excessive worry can negatively predict future distinct aspects of cognitive flexibility. Effectively targeting pathological worry might prevent difficulties arising from executive dysfunction.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1676-1686
Number of pages11
JournalPsychological medicine
Issue number10
StatePublished - Jul 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Applied Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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