Assessment of automatic associations with bodily sensations and agoraphobic situations in panic disorder.
Woud ML., Becker ES., Rinck M., Harmer CJ., Reinecke A.
BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: One of the central assumptions of cognitive models of Panic Disorder (PD) is that automatic panic-related associations are a core feature of PD. However, empirical findings are mixed and inconsistent, rendering it difficult to evaluate the role of panic-related associations adequately, particularly in relation to the relevant theories. The present study aimed to further advance our understanding of automatic associations in PD, and therefore applied a paradigm novel in this context, namely an Extrinsic Affective Simon Task (EAST). METHODS: Participants involved treatment seeking, unmedicated panic patients (n = 45) and healthy controls (n = 38). The EAST was applied prior to treatment. It included the following stimuli as targets: panic-related bodily sensations and agoraphobia-related situations, and as attributes: pleasant versus unpleasant, fear-related words. RESULTS: Contrary to our expectations, panic patients did not show stronger negative than positive automatic associations for either panic-related symptoms or agoraphobia-related situations, compared to healthy controls. Moreover, EAST effects did not correlate with panic-related self-report measures. LIMITATIONS: Although the present study involved patients who were actively seeking treatment, panic-related associations might not have been activated sufficiently. Hence, a brief activation procedure (e.g., hyperventilation) might have been needed to optimize the assessment condition. CONCLUSIONS: The present findings do not support contemporary theories of panic-related associations. Therefore, follow-up work is needed to disentangle their functional and operational properties more thoroughly.