Category: Adult Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are separate facets of the defensive response system: fear motivates apprehension and avoidance of specific, unambiguous, and imminent threats, whereas anxiety promotes sustained vigilance when threats are vague or uncertain (Davis, Walker, Miles, & Grillon, 2009). Converging evidence indicates distinct behavioral, neurobiological, and genetic correlates of fear and anxiety (Öhman, 2008). Likewise, trait fear and trait anxiety load on different higher-order personality factors (Constraint and Negative Emotionality, respectively) (Cox, Clara, & Enns, 2002; Krueger, 1999; Tellegen, 1985), suggesting that these traits are differentially associated with psychopathology (Sylvers, Lilienfeld, & LaPrairie, 2011). In light of these discrepancies, it may be informative to distinguish fear-related from anxiety-related psychopathology, which necessitates an understanding of how trait fear and trait anxiety differentially contribute to threat processing.
The present study aimed to clarify the influence of these traits on threat sensitivity, with the prediction that trait fear would be associated with overestimation of unambiguous threat, whereas trait anxiety would be associated with overestimation of uncertain threat. Healthy participants (N=135) completed measures of trait fear (Trait Fear Questionnaire; Kramer, Patrick, Krueger, & Gasperi, 2012) and trait anxiety (State-Trait Anxiety Inventory; Spielberger et al., 1983), followed by a fear conditioning and generalization task that used shock to condition fear to either a large or small ring-shaped stimulus (CS+, certain threat); the other ring size was never paired with shock (safety stimulus; CS-). During a subsequent generalization phase, rings that parametrically varied in similarity to the CS+ (i.e., uncertain threat) were presented and never paired with shock. Estimation of threat was assessed with ratings of shock risk during each stimulus. Trait fear and anxiety were first examined by categorizing participants as high or low in trait fear and anxiety, defined by cutoff scores at the median of each trait. The high trait fear group, compared to the low trait fear group, rated significantly higher risk of shock to all stimulus levels, p=.01. High and low trait anxiety groups did not differ in risk ratings, p=.25. Dimensionally, trait fear was moderately correlated with overall average risk rating (r=.20, p=.02) whereas trait anxiety was not (p=.12). Results did not support the hypothesis: during both known and uncertain threat of physical danger, trait fear was associated with risk overestimation. This finding may reflect the specificity of trait fear for examining physical threat, and the more non-specific assessment of negative affect by trait anxiety.