Abstract Attentional scanning was studied in anxious and non-anxious participants, using a modified change detection paradigm. Participants detected changes in pairs of emotional scenes separated by two task irrelevant slides, which contained an emotionally valenced scene (the ‘distractor scene’) and a visual mask. In agreement with attentional control theory, change detection latencies were slower overall for anxious participants. Change detection in anxious, but not non-anxious, participants was influenced by the emotional valence and exposure duration of distractor scenes. When negative distractor scenes were presented at subliminal exposure durations, anxious participants detected changes more rapidly than when supraliminal negative scenes or subliminal positive scenes were presented. We propose that for anxious participants, subliminal presentation of emotionally negative distractor scenes stimulated attention into a dynamic state in the absence of attentional engagement. Presentation of the same scenes at longer exposure times was accompanied by conscious awareness, attentional engagement, and slower change detection.