Startle potentiation to uncertain threat as a psychophysiological indicator of fear-based psychopathology: An examination across multiple internalizing disorders

J Abnorm Psychol. 2017 Jan;126(1):8-18. doi: 10.1037/abn0000233. Epub 2016 Nov 17.


Heightened reactivity to uncertain threat (U-threat) is an important individual difference factor that may characterize fear-based internalizing psychopathologies (IPs) and distinguish them from distress/misery IPs. To date, however, the majority of existing research examining reactivity to U-threat has been within individuals with panic disorder and major depressive disorder (MDD) and no prior study has directly tested this hypothesis across multiple IPs. The current study therefore explored whether heightened reactivity to U-threat is a psychophysiological indicator of fear-based psychopathology across 5 groups: current (a) social anxiety disorder (SAD); (b) specific phobia (SP); (c) generalized anxiety disorder (GAD); (d) MDD; and (c) individuals with no history of psychopathology (controls). All 160 adults completed a well-validated threat-of-shock task designed to probe responses to predictable (P-) and U-threat. Startle eyeblink potentiation was recorded as an index of aversive arousal. Results indicated that individuals with SAD and SP evidenced greater startle potentiation to U-threat, but not P-threat, relative to individuals with GAD, MDD, and controls (who did not differ). The current findings, along with the prior panic disorder and MDD literature, suggest that heightened reactivity to U-threat is a psychophysiological indicator of fear-based disorders and could represent a neurobiological organizing principle for internalizing psychopathology. The findings also suggest that individuals with fear disorders generally display a hypersensitivity to uncertain aversive events, which could contribute to their psychopathology. (PsycINFO Database Record

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Depressive Disorder, Major / physiopathology*
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Phobia, Social / physiopathology
  • Phobic Disorders / physiopathology
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult

Supplementary concepts

  • Phobia, Specific