One risk factor for the development of anxiety is the tendency for someone to respond anxiously to safe cues and dangerous cues similarly. Research has shown that some people exhibit elevated startle responses when presented with safe stimuli, but not when presented with overtly threatening stimuli. “These effects have been observed in individuals (across the age range) who have anxiety disorders, as well as in children and adolescents who are at risk for anxiety disorders,” said Michelle G. Craske of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of a recent study. Craske and her colleagues wanted to determine if this startle response (SR) could forecast anxiety in adolescents, and also wanted to ascertain if the degree of the startle response could disseminate between which young people were more likely to develop anxiety versus other mood problems, such as depression. “This is an important question given the high rate of comorbidity between anxiety and depression, and the continuing search for factors that are common to anxiety and depression as well as factors that are unique to each,” said Craske.
The researchers enlisted 132 adolescents from a larger study on youth emotional issues. They presented the teens with safe, followed by dangerous, scenarios and told them that they would receive a stimulus during the danger portion of the experiment, but administered the stimulus during the safe portion. Over the next four years, the team followed the teens to assess them for the development of mood problems or anxiety. “Elevated SRs during safe conditions, after delivery of an aversive stimulus, were predictive of the onset of anxiety disorders; no SR index was a statistically significant predictor of the onset of unipolar depressive disorders,” said the team. “These findings suggest that elevated responding in a safe condition of a threat paradigm is a marker of risk that is specific to first onset anxiety disorders.”
Craske, M. G., Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Mineka, S., Zinbarg, R., Waters, A. M., Vrshek-Schallhorn, S., Epstein, A., Naliboff, B., & Ornitz, E. (2011, October 10). Elevated Responding to Safe Conditions as a Specific Risk Factor for Anxiety Versus Depressive Disorders: Evidence From a Longitudinal Investigation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025738
© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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