The verbal nature of worry in generalized anxiety: Insights from the brain

Elena Makovac, Jonathan Smallwood, David R. Watson, Frances Meeten, Hugo D. Critchley, Cristina Ottaviani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background The Cognitive Avoidance Theory of Worry argues that worry is a cognitive strategy adopted to control the physiological arousal associated with anxiety. According to this theory, pathological worry, as in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), is verbal in nature, negative and abstract, rather than concrete. Neuroimaging studies link the expression of worry to characteristic modes of brain functional connectivity, especially in relation to the amygdala. However, the distinctive features of worry (verbal, abstract, negative), and their relationship to physiological arousal, have not so far been mapped to brain function. Methods We addressed this omission by undertaking a resting-state functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging study of 19 patients with GAD and 21 controls, before and after induction of perseverative cognitions, while measuring emotional bodily arousal from heart rate (HR). Seed-based analyses quantified brain changes in whole brain functional connectivity from the amygdala. Results In GAD, the induction increased negative thoughts and their verbal content. In line with predictions, the verbal expression of worry in GAD was associated with higher HR at baseline and attenuated HR increases after induction of perseverative cognitions. Within brain, the increased use of words during worry, and the associated dampening of HR after induction were mediated by the strength of functional connectivity between the amygdala and default mode network ‘hubs’ and the opercular cortex. The negative content of worry was further related to functional communication between amygdala and cingulo-opercular and temporal cortices. Conclusions Findings provide a neurobiological basis for the impact of verbal worry on HR in GAD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)882-892
Number of pages11
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Dec 14 2017


  • Amygdala
  • Functional connectivity
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Heart rate
  • New York Cognition Questionnaire
  • Worry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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