Anxiety does not always affect balance: the predominating role of cognitive engagement in a video gaming task

B. S. DeCouto, A. M. Williams, K. R. Lohse, S. H. Creem-Regehr, D. L. Strayer, P. C. Fino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scientists have predominantly assessed anxiety’s impact on postural control when anxiety is created by the need to maintain balance (e.g., standing at heights). In the present study, we investigate how postural control and its mechanisms (i.e., vestibular function) are impacted when anxiety is induced by an unrelated task (playing a video game). Additionally, we compare watching and playing a game to dissociate postural adaptations caused by increased engagement rather than anxiety. Participants [N = 25, female = 8, M (SD) age = 23.5 (3.9)] held a controller in four standing conditions of varying surface compliance (firm or foam) and with or without peripheral visual occlusion across four blocks: quiet standing (baseline), watching the game with a visual task (watching), playing the game (low anxiety), and playing under anxiety (high anxiety). We measured sway area, sway frequency, root mean square (RMS) sway, anxiety, and mental effort. Limited sway differences emerged between anxiety blocks (only sway area on firm surface). The watching block elicited more sway than baseline (greater sway area and RMS sway; lower sway frequency), and the low anxiety block elicited more sway than the watching block (greater sway area and RMS sway; higher sway frequency). Mental effort was associated with increased sway area and RMS sway. Our findings indicate that anxiety, when generated through competition, has minimal impact on postural control. Postural control primarily adapts according to mental effort and more cognitively engaging task constraints (i.e., playing versus watching). We speculate increased sway reflects the prioritization of attention to game performance over postural control.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2001-2014
Number of pages14
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Attention
  • Mental effort
  • Postural control
  • Sway
  • Vestibular


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