SPOILER ALERT! ~ Trait anxiety refers to a personality characteristic. These personality types tend to react with anxiety more frequently. ~ High anxiety makes it hard to sustain attention on a task and hinders multitasking. ~ More cognitive effort is required with high anxiety ~ Less cognitive effort is put into simpler, everyday tasks, which explains why we tend to make more mistakes. ~ Motivation helps you make more cognitive effort and accomplish a difficult task under situations of high anxiety.
In anxiety disorders, deficits in attention have been documented in the absence of a source of anxiety or emotional situations. Particularly, trait anxiety (i.e., part of the personality) has been associated with cognitive (i.e., having to do with thinking) impairments in language comprehension tasks, longer reaction times (i.e, the time it takes to respond), and enhanced attention to distractors (i.e., in this case distractors are things that are a source of anxiety).
Link between Anxiety and Cognitive Impairments
For example, research documents a reduced ability to flexibly shift attention between relevant task demands among high-anxiety individuals, which means that the participants with high anxiety had difficulty managing multitasking.
To explain those results, it has been postulated that anxiety is associated with deficits in cognitive efficiency, as it makes it hard to stop paying attention to information that is not relevant to the task at hand without compromising performance. In other words, individuals with high anxiety are not able to sustain their attention during a mental task as efficiently as low anxiety individuals, but they are still able to perform the task, albeit with more effort.
Anxiety Associated with Mistakes with Mundane Tasks
In fact, it is predicted that highly anxious participants recruit additional cognitive resources to overcome these deficits in attentional control, which explains why there are greater neural responses documented in neuroimaging studies.
More specifically, there is evidence that during cognitively demanding tasks (i.e., recalling a word or a number that was mentioned earlier – AKA n-back task) high anxiety individuals tend to use more cognitive resources yet use less during simpler tasks. This latter finding (i.e., that they use less cognitive resources for simple tasks) helps explain why they tend to make more mistakes on simpler, more mundane tasks.
For example, an earlier study shows that as anxiety increases, slips and errors during everyday tasks also increase. A number of factors have been identified to try to understand this cognitive efficiency deficit, such as reduced ability to flexibly shift attention between relevant tasks demands, keeping in mind specific information, and motivation.
A particularly interesting finding that emerged from those studies indicates that in high anxiety motivation mediates the recruitment of additional cognitive resources to compensate for poor cognitive attention and ultimately help perform a task. This means that when motivated, highly anxious individuals are more likely to increase their effort and less likely to perform poorly.
Berggren N, Derakshan N. Attentional control deficits in trait anxiety: why you see them and why you don’t. Biol Psychol. 2013;92(3):440-446. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.03.007