Training discrimination diminishes maladaptive avoidance of innocuous stimuli in a fear conditioning paradigm.
Lommen MJJ., Duta M., Vanbrabant K., de Jong R., Juechems K., Ehlers A.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder worldwide. Although anxiety disorders differ in the nature of feared objects or situations, they share a common mechanism by which fear generalizes to related but innocuous objects, eliciting avoidance of objects and situations that pose no objective risk. This overgeneralization appears to be a crucial mechanism in the persistence of anxiety psychopathology. In this study we test whether an intervention that promotes discrimination learning reduces generalization of fear, in particular, harm expectancy and avoidance compared to an irrelevant (control) training. Healthy participants (N = 80) were randomly allocated to a training condition. Using a fear conditioning paradigm, participants first learned visual danger and safety signals (set 1). Baseline level of stimulus generalization was tested with ambiguous stimuli on a spectrum between the danger and safety signals. There were no differences between the training groups. Participants then received the stimulus discrimination training or a control training. After training, participants learned a new set of danger and safety signals (set 2), and the level of harm expectancy generalization and behavioural avoidance of ambiguous stimuli was tested. Although the training groups did not differ in fear generalization on a cognitive level (harm expectancy), the results showed a different pattern of avoidance of ambiguous stimuli, with the discrimination training group showing less avoidance of stimuli that resembled the safety signals. These results support the potential of interventions that promote discrimination learning in the treatment of anxiety disorders.