Early hypervigilance and later avoidance: Event-related potentials track the processing of threatening stimuli in anxiety

Franziska Magdalena Kausche, Kai Härpfer, Hannes Per Carsten, Norbert Kathmann, Anja Riesel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Avoidance behavior is a core symptom of anxiety disorders that may hinder adaptation. Anxiety disorders are heterogeneous and previous research suggests to decompose anxiety into two dimensions: anxious apprehension and anxious arousal. How these two dimensions are associated with avoidance of and exposure to threatening stimuli, as well as their accompanying neural processes, is barely understood. We examined threat processing using event-related potentials (N1, LPP) from 134 individuals considering the influence of anxiety dimensions. During a two-phase picture-viewing task the participants watched neutral and threatening pictures, which they were instructed to either avoid or attend to during repeated presentations. Results showed that threatening compared to neutral pictures were associated with increased attention allocation (N1) and in-depth processing (LPP), modulated by task-instructions (lower during avoidance). Further, increased anxious apprehension was associated with heightened automatic attention (increased N1), followed by reduced LPP amplitudes for threatening pictures suggesting reduced in-depth processing. During re-exposure, threatening pictures were associated with increased in-depth processing, with no difference between previously avoided and maintained pictures. Together, these results illustrate that avoidance and high anxious apprehension seem to lead to similar neural changes in the processing of aversive images that may conflict with long-term adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Article number104181
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the German Research Foundation [ RI-2853/2-1 ].

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


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