A new study has found that American Indians with Generalized Anxiety Disorder exhibit elevated cognitive effort during a cognitive test. However, higher levels of spirituality were linked to improved cognitive performance among these individuals, suggesting spirituality as a protective factor against anxiety’s cognitive challenges. The study was published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a chronic mental health condition characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a variety of everyday things. People with GAD often find it difficult to control their anxiety and may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
Previous research has hinted at higher resilience and positive mental health levels among American Indians, despite the elevated risk for psychopathology. This study aimed to delve deeper into the factors contributing to this resilience, with a particular focus on spirituality. While there’s existing evidence linking spirituality to lower rates of psychopathology, it remains underdeveloped, particularly within the context of American Indian communities.
“As a Native person from Oklahoma, I am motivated to find ways to use my education and opportunities afforded to me to give back to Native communities,” said study author Evan J. White, the director of Native American Research and Electroencephalography Core at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. “As a mental health professional and researcher, I recognize a significant need for mental health services and research in general and particularly in communities experiencing mental health inequity.”
To explore this, the researchers recruited a group of 52 American Indian participants from the Tulsa-1000 study. Among these participants, 16 were diagnosed with GAD, while 36 did not have this diagnosis. The Tulsa-1000 study, a comprehensive initiative aiming to understand various mental health disorders, provided a rich pool of subjects for this investigation.
Psychopathology was assessed using the MINI International Neuropsychiatric Interview, a widely recognized tool that aligns with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Additionally, participants completed the Native American Spirituality Scale (NASS), which measures the level of spirituality among individuals.
To probe cognitive control, researchers employed a Stop Signal Task, a cognitive test that required participants to respond to visual stimuli. Stop trials, representing 25% of the trials, introduced auditory tones and color changes as stop signals. The difficulty of the trials was adjusted to each participant’s reaction time.
EEG (electroencephalogram) data was collected during the task, providing valuable insights into the participants’ brain activity. This data was then carefully processed to remove artifacts, ensuring the accuracy of the results.
White and his colleagues found that individuals with GAD exhibited elevated cognitive effort, as indicated by higher P3 amplitudes during the Stop Signal Task. P3 amplitudes are a set of electrical voltage fluctuations observed in the human brain, which are associated with cognitive processes such as attention, decision-making, and memory. The finding suggests that, when faced with cognitive challenges, individuals with GAD had to put in more mental work.
However, what makes these findings intriguing is the role of spirituality. The researchers found that higher levels of spirituality were associated with reduced P3 amplitudes in individuals with GAD during correct trials of the task. In simpler terms, greater spiritual engagement was linked to increased cognitive efficiency among those with general anxiety.
In essence, this means that spirituality acted as a protective factor, enhancing the cognitive performance of individuals facing anxiety challenges.
“Although preliminary, the study indicates that spirituality may be associated with better cognitive performance for individuals with anxiety disorders. This study is specific to Native people; however, previous research in the broader population supports health benefits of religious engagement as well,” White told PsyPost.
While these findings are provide important insights, it’s important to acknowledge the study’s limitations. One significant limitation is the relatively small sample size of 52 participants. While the results are promising, larger studies are needed to confirm these findings and explore additional factors that may contribute to cognitive resilience.
Furthermore, future research should delve deeper into the mechanisms at play within American Indian spiritual practices. These practices often involve social interactions and activities like singing and praying, which may have a positive impact on cognitive health. Understanding these mechanisms can inform more effective mental health interventions within American Indian communities.
The study, “Cognitive control as a potential neural mechanism of protective role of spirituality in anxiety disorders among American Indian people: An ERP study“, was authored by Nicole R. Baughman, Ricardo A. Wilhelm, Philip A. Spechler, Breanna A. McNaughton, Mara J. Demuth, Gary L. Lawrence, Glenna Stumblingbear Riddle, Joanna O. Shadlow, Terrence Kominsky, Jennifer L. Stewart, Robin L. Aupperle, Martin P Paulus, and Evan J. White.