Fear of the unknown is the personality trait that underlies many anxiety disorders.
Social anxiety, panic disorder and specific phobias all have fear of the unknown at their heart.
Someone who is sensitive to uncertainty may spend a lot of time worrying what is going to happen to them.
For example, people with panic disorder are constantly worrying that they are going to panic.
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Dr Stephanie Gorka, the study’s first author, said:
“It’s what we call anticipatory anxiety.
It could be something like not knowing exactly when your doctor will call with test results.”
The study tested people’s eye blink response to mild electrical shocks.
Some participants had anxiety disorders, others had no current or prior diagnosis.
Dr Gorka explained:
“No matter who you are or what your mental health status, you are going to blink in response to the tone.
It’s a natural reflex, so everyone does it, without exception.”
Some of the electrical shocks were predictable, while others were a surprise.
The results showed that people with anxiety disorders tended to blink more strongly to unpredictable shocks.
This suggests those with anxiety disorders are more sensitive than others to uncertain events.
Professor K. Luan Phan, a senior study author, said:
“We classify so many different mood and anxiety disorders, and each has its own set of guidelines for treatment, but if we spend time treating their shared characteristics, we might make better progress.
Knowing that sensitivity to uncertain threat underlies all of the fear-based anxiety disorders also suggests that drugs that help specifically target this sensitivity could be used or developed to treat these disorders.”
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The study was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Gorka et al., 2016).