Publication date: Available online 23 September 2017
Source:International Journal of Psychophysiology
Author(s): Christoph Benke, Elischa Krause, Alfons O. Hamm, Christiane A. Pané-Farré
Resistant avoidance behaviors play a crucial role in the maintenance of anxiety disorders and are therefore central targets of therapeutic interventions. In the present study, the development of avoidance behavior was investigated in 24 healthy participants who repeatedly prematurely terminated the exposure to increasing interoceptive threat, i.e., the feeling of dyspnea induced by increasing inspiratory resistive loads that were followed by the ultimate threat, a short breathing occlusion. Physiological responses and subjective anxiety preceding terminations were compared to matched intervals of a matched control group (N=24) who completed the exposure. Initially, participants terminated during the ultimate threat, i.e., during occlusion. This first termination was preceded by a strong surge in autonomic arousal and reported anxiety. Startle reflex and the P3 component of event-related brain potentials to startle probes were strongly inhibited, indicating preparation for defensive action. With repetitive terminations, individuals successively terminated earlier, avoiding exposure to the occlusion. This avoidant behavior was accompanied by alleviated autonomic arousal as compared to the first termination. In addition, no indication of physiological response preparation was found implying that the avoidance behavior was performed in a rather habitual way. Matched controls did not show any indication of a defensive response surge in the matched intervals. In matched controls, no changes in physiological response patterns were detected while anxiety levels increased with repetitions. The present results shed new light on our understanding of the motivational basis of avoidance behavior and may help to refine etiological models, behavioral analysis and therapeutic strategies in treating anxiety disorders.
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