Sometimes when reading articles on psychology, you might come across the term "executive functioning" or "executive control." For instance, you might have heard that someone suffers from "impaired executive functioning" or has "poor executive control." But what does that mean? And how does it relate to anxiety?
Executive functioning is a crucial part of the human memory system known as working memory. Whereas short-term memory and long-term memory are used to maintain a nearly unlimited amount information over the course of days, weeks, years, or even decades, working memory has a limited capacity and holds only the information you are working on at a given moment1. Put differently, short-term and long-term memory can be thought of as shelves where you can set information for longer periods of time to be retrieved later. Working memory, though, functions more like your hands. It allows you to hold and examine particular items, but it can only hold so many things before it needs to drop a few items.
By The Numbers
Psychologists often say that people can hold "the magic number 7 +/- 2" objects in working memory2, and though recent work shows that the actual number varies widely depending on circumstances, 7+/-2 still stands as a good, rough estimate3. But what happens when you try to hold more than this number of items at once? You forget what you were trying to "hold", sometimes forever. For instance, if you are trying to remember an important phone number, but suddenly, a friend asks you to perform some simple math, you will likely forget the phone number completely. It is as if you had your hands full of objects, but then someone tried to add one more thing, causing you to drop what you were holding. Thus, given the limited nature of working memory, it is essential that it focus on only the things that are absolutely necessary and ignore irrelevant information.
Enter executive functioning. Executive functioning is thought to play a role in a number of important processes related to cognitive control1. For instance, it seems to play a role in helping individuals regulate emotions through inhibiting unwanted or inappropriate emotional responses4. In regard to working memory, executive functioning is what enables the mind to focus on desired information while suppressing uninteresting or irrelevant information. In other words, it is the mechanism that allows us to "control" what we pay attention to. Returning to the phone number example, someone with strong executive functioning (or "strong executive control of attention") would be able to ignore their friend asking for mathematical assistance and maintain their focus on the crucial phone number. However, someone who had impaired executive control, such as someone with severe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)5, would struggle to ignore the irrelevant math problem and most likely forget the phone number – no matter how important that number might have been.
The Anxiety Connection
Interestingly, a growing body of research suggests that individuals who have high trait, or baseline, anxiety also suffer from deficits in executive control. For instance, a number of studies have found that high anxiety individuals, such as those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), have a decreased ability to ignore irrelevant information, especially when that information is threatening6, and greater difficulty switching attention between tasks7. In fact, "difficulty concentrating" is one of the primary symptoms of GAD8. Though researchers are still examining exactly how anxiety affects executive functioning, the most prominent theory poses that anxiety specifically interferes with an aspect of executive functioning known as attentional control9. This interference makes concentrating and switching attention from task to task more difficult for individuals high in anxiety.
Why might this relationship exist? One potential explanation is that, perhaps, very anxious individuals have less "space" in working memory due to their worries, which disrupts their attentional control. It is like high anxiety individuals are constantly carrying around extra information in their mind (i.e., their worries) meaning that they have less space to flexibly handle new things. To use the hand metaphor described above, it would be as if you had to carry around an extra object everywhere you went, making it more difficult to pick up or examine new objects. Consequently, high anxiety people may be more easily distracted by new information and have a harder time switching their attention between competing sources of information (e.g., two different people talking simultaneously).
As it stands, it is currently unclear what the above findings mean in regards to treatment. It may be that helping anxious people improve their attentional abilities could help with anxiety. However, it could also be that treating anxiety may be the path to helping individuals with their attentional problems. Much more research is needed to answer these questions. Hopefully, though, continuing work on the part of scientists will help us to understand why high anxiety individuals have decreased executive control and help to alleviate this problem.
Recommended For You
1. Baddeley, A. D. (2001). Is working memory still working?. American Psychologist, 56(11), 851.
2. Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review,63(2), 81.
3. Baddeley, A. (1994). The Magical Number Seven: Still Magic after All These Years?. Psychological Review, 101(2), 353-56.
4. Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Executive functions and self-regulation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(3), 174-180.
5. Barkley, R. A. (1997). Behavioral inhibition, sustained attention, and executive functions: constructing a unifying theory of ADHD. Psychological Bulletin, 121(1), 65.
6. Bar-Haim, Y., Lamy, D., Pergamin, L., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (2007). Threat-related attentional bias in anxious and nonanxious individuals: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 1.
7. Ansari, T. L., Derakshan, N., & Richards, A. (2008). Effects of anxiety on task switching: Evidence from the mixed antisaccade task. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 8(3), 229-238.
8. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
9. Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336.
Date of original publication: August 25, 2016
Updated: August 08, 2017