Anxiety is induced by unpredictable threat, and presumably characterized by enhanced vigilance. In contrast, fear is elicited by imminent threat, and leads to phasic responses with selective attention. In order to investigate attention mechanisms and defensive responding during fear and anxiety, we employed an adaptation of the NPU-threat test and measured cortical (steady-state visual evoked potentials, ssVEPs), physiological (heart rate, HR), and subjective responses (ratings) to predictable (fear-related) and unpredictable (anxiety-related) threat in 42 healthy participants. An aversive unconditioned stimulus (US, loud noise) was 100% predicted by a cue (predictable P-cue) in one context (predictable P-context), but appeared unpredictably within a different context (unpredictable U-context, U-cue), while it was never delivered in a neutral safe context (N-cue, N- context). In response to predictable threat (P-cue), increased ssVEP amplitudes and accelerated HR were found.
Both predictable and unpredictable contexts yielded increased ssVEP amplitudes compared to the safe context. Interestingly, in the unpredictable context participants showed longer-lasting visuocortical activation than in the predictable context, supporting the notion of heightened vigilance during anxiety. In parallel, HR decelerated to both threat contexts indicating fear bradycardia to these threatening contexts as compared to the safe context. These results support the idea of hypervigilance in anxiety-like situations reflected in a long-lasting facilitated processing of sensory information, in contrast to increased selective attention to specific imminent threat during fear. Thus, this study further supports the defense-cascade model with vigilance and orienting in the post-encounter phase of threat (anxiety), while selective attention and defensive mobilization in the circa-strike phase of threat (fear).

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Department of Psychology

Kastner-Dorn, A.K. (Anna K.), Andreatta, M. (Marta), Pauli, P. (Paul), & Wieser, M. (2018). Hypervigilance during anxiety and selective attention during fear. Cortex, 106, 120–131. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2018.05.008