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      Dysfunctional Freezing Responses to Approaching Stimuli in Persons with a Looming Cognitive Style for Physical Threats


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          Immobilizing freezing responses are associated with anxiety and may be etiologically related to several anxiety disorders. Although recent studies have sought to investigate the underlying mechanisms in freezing responses that are so problematic in many forms of anxiety, cognitive factors related to anxiety have not been investigated. This study was designed to investigate the potential moderating role of a well-documented cognitive vulnerability to anxiety, the Looming Cognitive Style (i.e., LCS; Riskind et al., 2000), which assesses the extent to which individuals tend to routinely interpret ambiguous threats (e.g., physical or social threats) in a biased manner as approaching. We assessed participants' Reaction Times (RTs) when they made judgments about images of animals that differed in threat valence (threat or neutral) and motion direction (approach or recede). As expected, LCS for concerns about the approach of physical dangers appeared to moderate freeze reactions. Individuals who were high on this LCS factor tended to generally exhibit a freeze-response (slower RTs) and this was independent of the threat valence or motion direction of the animals. These general freezing reactions were in stark contrast to those of individuals who were low on the LCS factor for concerns about the approach of physical dangers. These participants tended to exhibit more selective and functional freezing responses that occurred only to threatening animals with approach motion; they did not exhibit freezing to neutral stimuli or any stimuli with receding motion. These findings did not appear to be explicable by a general slowing of RTs for the participants with high LCS. Moreover, the LCS factor for concerns about social threats (such as rejection or embarrassment) was not related to differences in freezing; there was also no additional relationship of freezing to behavioral inhibition scores on the Behavioral Inhibition System and the Behavioral Activation System Scales (BIS/BAS). It may prove fruitful to further explore cognitive factors related to anxiety to develop a more comprehensive understanding of how these factors are associated with anxiety-related freezing responses.

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          Most cited references28

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          The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system

          We propose a Survival Optimization System (SOS) to account for the strategies that humans and other animals use to defend against recurring and novel threats. The SOS attempts to merge ecological models that define a repertoire of contextually relevant threat induced survival behaviors with contemporary approaches to human affective science. We first propose that the goal of the nervous system is to reduce surprise and optimize actions by (i) predicting the sensory landscape by simulating possible encounters with threat and selecting the appropriate pre-encounter action and (ii) prevention strategies in which the organism manufactures safe environments. When a potential threat is encountered the (iii) threat orienting system is engaged to determine whether the organism ignores the stimulus or switches into a process of (iv) threat assessment, where the organism monitors the stimulus, weighs the threat value, predicts the actions of the threat, searches for safety, and guides behavioral actions crucial to directed escape. When under imminent attack, (v) defensive systems evoke fast reflexive indirect escape behaviors (i.e., fight or flight). This cascade of responses to threat of increasing magnitude are underwritten by an interconnected neural architecture that extends from cortical and hippocampal circuits, to attention, action and threat systems including the amygdala, striatum, and hard-wired defensive systems in the midbrain. The SOS also includes a modulatory feature consisting of cognitive appraisal systems that flexibly guide perception, risk and action. Moreover, personal and vicarious threat encounters fine-tune avoidance behaviors via model-based learning, with higher organisms bridging data to reduce face-to-face encounters with predators. Our model attempts to unify the divergent field of human affective science, proposing a highly integrated nervous system that has evolved to increase the organism's chances of survival.
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            Facing freeze: social threat induces bodily freeze in humans.

            Freezing is a common defensive response in animals threatened by predators. It is characterized by reduced body motion and decreased heart rate (bradycardia). However, despite the relevance of animal defense models in human stress research, studies have not shown whether social threat cues elicit similar freeze-like responses in humans. We investigated body sway and heart rate in 50 female participants while they were standing on a stabilometric force platform and viewing cues that were socially threatening, socially neutral, and socially affiliative (angry, neutral, and happy faces, respectively). Posturographic analyses showed that angry faces (compared with neutral faces and happy faces) induced significant reductions in body sway. In addition, the reduced body sway for angry faces was accompanied by bradycardia and correlated significantly with subjective anxiety. Together, these findings indicate that spontaneous body responses to social threat cues involve freeze-like behavior in humans that mimics animal freeze responses. These findings open avenues for studying human freeze responses in relation to various sociobiological markers and social-affective disorders.
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              A freezing-like posture to pictures of mutilation.

              Postural sway and heart rate were recorded in young men viewing emotionally engaging pictures. It was hypothesized that they would show a human analog of "freezing" behavior (i.e., immobility and heart rate deceleration) when confronted with a sustained block of unpleasant (mutilation) images, relative to their response to pleasant/arousing (sport action) or neutral (objects) pictures. Volunteers stood on a stabilometric platform during picture viewing. Significantly reduced body sway was recorded during the unpleasant pictures, along with increased mean power frequency (indexing muscle stiffness). Heart rate during unpleasant pictures also showed the expected greater deceleration. This pattern resembles the "freezing" and "fear bradycardia" seen in many species when confronted with threatening stimuli, mediated by neural circuits that promote defensive survival.

                Author and article information

                Front Psychol
                Front Psychol
                Front. Psychol.
                Frontiers in Psychology
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                19 April 2016
                : 7
                : 521
                [1] 1Department of Psychology, George Mason University Fairfax, VA, USA
                [2] 2Neuropsychology Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Second University of Naples Caserta, Italy
                Author notes

                Edited by: Lorys Castelli, University of Turin, Italy

                Reviewed by: Maria Luisa Rusconi, Department of Human and Social Sciences, Italy; Carlos Eduardo Norte, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

                *Correspondence: John H. Riskind jriskind@ 123456gmu.edu ;

                This article was submitted to Psychology for Clinical Settings, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

                Copyright © 2016 Riskind, Sagliano, Trojano and Conson.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                : 01 February 2016
                : 29 March 2016
                Page count
                Figures: 2, Tables: 2, Equations: 0, References: 39, Pages: 9, Words: 6943
                Original Research

                Clinical Psychology & Psychiatry
                freezing,looming cognitive style,physical threats,anxiety,approaching motion


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