Fear of the unknown common to many anxiety disorders

November 18, 2016 by Sharon Parmet, University of Illinois at Chicago

Several anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and specific phobias, share a common underlying trait: increased sensitivity to uncertain threat, or fear of the unknown, report researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The finding could help steer treatment of these disorders away from diagnosis-based therapies to treating their common characteristics.

"We may, one day, open up clinics that focus on treating the underlying common neurobiology of the patient's symptoms instead of individual diagnoses," says Stephanie Gorka, research assistant professor of psychiatry and a clinical psychologist in the UIC College of Medicine. "A treatment, or set of treatments, focused on sensitivity to uncertain threat could result in a more impactful and efficient way of treating a variety of anxiety disorders and symptoms."

Uncertain threat is unpredictable in its timing, intensity, frequency or duration and elicits a generalized feeling of apprehension and hypervigilance.

"It's what we call anticipatory anxiety," says Gorka, who is corresponding author on the study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. "It could be something like not knowing exactly when your doctor will call with test results."

When a person is sensitive to uncertain threat, they can spend the entire day anxious and concerned that something bad could happen to them, Gorka said. Panic disorder is one example—patients are constantly anxious over the fact that they could have a panic attack at any moment, she said.

Predictable threat, on the other hand, produces a discrete fight-or-flight response that has a clear trigger, like a hungry bear coming at you, and it abates once the threat has resolved.

Previous research by Gorka and colleagues suggests that heightened sensitivity to uncertain threat may be an important factor that characterizes the fear-based internalizing psychopathologies, but most research focuses on , so its role in the other fear-based disorders—particularly and specific phobias—remains unclear.

Gorka and her colleagues looked at data from participants who underwent a startle task in two different studies performed at UIC. The two studies, of participants ages 18 to 65, included 25 participants with ; 29 with ; 41 with social anxiety disorder; and 24 with a specific phobia. Forty-one control subjects had no current or prior diagnoses of psychopathology.

The researchers measured the participants' eye-blink responses to predictable and unpredictable mild electric shocks to the wrist. To elicit blinking during the shock-task, the participants heard short, acoustic tones via headphones.

"No matter who you are or what your mental health status, you are going to blink in response to the tone," Gorka said. "It's a natural reflex, so everyone does it, without exception."

The researchers measured the strength of the blinks using an electrode under the participants' eyes. They compared the strength of the blinks in response to tones delivered during the predictable shock to the blinks during the unpredictable shock.

They found that participants with disorder or a specific phobia blinked much more strongly during the unpredictable shocks, when compared to participants without a diagnosis or to with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.

"We classify so many different mood and anxiety disorders, and each has its own set of guidelines for treatment, but if we spend time treating their shared characteristics, we might make better progress," said Dr. K. Luan Phan, professor of psychiatry and director of the mood and anxiety disorders research program and senior author on the study. "Knowing that sensitivity to uncertain threat underlies all of the fear-based also suggests that drugs that help specifically target this sensitivity could be used or developed to treat these disorders."

Explore further: Review links anxiety disorders to risk of cardiovascular events

Related Stories

Review links anxiety disorders to risk of cardiovascular events

August 15, 2016
(HealthDay)—Anxiety disorders are associated with a range of cardiovascular events, according to a meta-analysis published in the Aug. 15 issue of The American Journal of Cardiology.

How social anxiety can be overcome with internet

October 21, 2016
In the current issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics a study analyzes the effects of internet-based cognitive behavior therapy for social anxiety. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is one of the most common mental disorders ...

Yoga may be viable option for people with generalized anxiety disorder

October 3, 2016
Yoga could help reduce symptoms for people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, according to a study published by Georgia State University researchers in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

Study finds massage helps treat generalized anxiety disorder

August 4, 2016
A new study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry finds acute Swedish massage therapy provides significant improvement in symptoms of individuals with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The article, written by ...

Research finds cognitive-behavioral therapy effective in combatting anxiety disorders

June 28, 2012
Whether it is a phobia like a fear of flying, public speaking or spiders, or a diagnosis such as obsessive compulsive disorder, new research finds patients suffering from anxiety disorders showed the most improvement when ...

Men with anxiety are more likely to die of cancer, study says

September 20, 2016
Men over 40 who are plagued with the omnipresent of generalized anxiety disorder are more than twice as likely to die of cancer than are men who do not have the mental affliction, new research finds. But for women who suffer ...

Recommended for you

Smartphones are bad for some teens, not all

February 21, 2018
Is the next generation better or worse off because of smartphones? The answer is complex and research shows it largely depends on their lives offline.

Researchers uncover novel mechanism behind schizophrenia

February 21, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine scientist has uncovered a novel mechanism in which a protein—neuregulin 3—controls how key neurotransmitters are released ...

Self-compassion may protect people from the harmful effects of perfectionism

February 21, 2018
Relating to oneself in a healthy way can help weaken the association between perfectionism and depression, according to a study published February 21, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Madeleine Ferrari from Australian ...

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

Jymmin: How a combination of exercise and music helps us feel less pain

February 20, 2018
Pain is essential for survival. However, it could also slow the progress of rehabilitation, or in its chronic form could become a distinct disorder. How strongly we feel it, among other factors, depends on our individual ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.