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Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation reduces spontaneous but not induced negative thought intrusions in high worriers

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS) was tested in chronic worriers. tVNS may reduce spontaneously occurring negative thought intrusions. After a worry induction, there was no longer an effect of tVNS. tVNS did not affect physiological responding to worrying.

A.M. Burger, W. Van der Does, J.F. Thayer, J.F. Brosschot, B. Verkuil
07 March 2019
Biological Psychology

Worrying is a central component of anxiety disorders. We tested whether non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation reduces negative thought intrusions in high worriers. Worry was assessed with a Breathing Focus Task, which consists of a pre-worry period, a worry induction, and a post-worry period. Ninety-seven high worriers were randomly allocated to receive transcutaneous electrical stimulation of the auricular branch of the vagus nerve at the concha (tVNS), or of the earlobe (sham stimulation) throughout the lab session. Participants who received tVNS reported significantly fewer negative thought intrusions during the pre-worry period, but the effects of tVNS after the worry induction were mixed. An exploratory analysis indicated that participants in the tVNS condition were more likely to report negative thought intrusions shortly after the worry induction, but became less likely to do so as the post-worry period went on. No effects of tVNS on RMSSD were observed. These findings provide preliminary indications that tVNS may decrease the occurrence of worrisome thoughts.

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