Distinct responses to predictable and unpredictable threat in anxiety pathologies: effect of panic attack

Biol Psychiatry Cogn Neurosci Neuroimaging. 2017 Oct;2(7):575-581. doi: 10.1016/j.bpsc.2016.08.005.


Background: Delineating specific clinical phenotypes of anxiety disorders is a crucial step toward better classification and understanding of these conditions. The present study sought to identify differential aversive responses to predictable and unpredictable threat of shock in healthy comparisons and in non-medicated anxiety patients with and without a history of panic attacks (PAs).

Method: 143 adults (72 healthy controls; 71 patients with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or/and social anxiety disorder (SAD), 24 with and 47 without PAs) were exposed to three conditions: 1) predictable shocks signaled by a cue, 2) unpredictable shocks, and 3) no shock. Startle magnitude was used to assess aversive responses.

Results: Across disorders, a PA history was specifically associated with hypersensitivity to unpredictable threat. By disorder, SAD was associated with hypersensitivity to predictable threat, whereas GAD was associated with exaggerated baseline startle.

Conclusions: These results identified three physiological patterns. The first is hypersensitivity to unpredictable threat in individuals with PAs. The second is hypersensitivity to predictable threat, which characterizes SAD. The third is enhanced baseline startle in GAD, which may reflect propensity for self-generated anxious thoughts in the absence of imminent danger. These results inform current thinking by linking specific clinical features to particular physiology profiles.

Keywords: Anxiety disorder; anxiety; fear; panic attack; predictability; startle.