Impaired fear inhibition has been described as a hallmark of pathological anxiety. We aimed at further characterizing the relation between fear inhibition and anxiety by extending previous work to contextual safety stimuli as well as to dimensional scores of trait anxiety in a large sample.
We employed a validated paradigm for context-dependent fear acquisition/extinction (day 1) and retrieval/expression (day 2) in 377 healthy individuals. This large sample size allowed the employment of a dimensional rather than binary approach with respect to individual differences in trait anxiety.
We observed a positive correlation on day 1 between trait anxiety with all CSs that possess an inherent inhibitory component, conveyed either by reliable non-reinforcement of a specific CS in a dangerous context (safe cue) or by the context itself (i.e., safe context). No correlation however was observed for a CS that possesses excitatory (threatening) properties only. These results were observed during fear learning (day 1) for US expectancy and fear ratings but not for SCRs. No such pattern was evident during fear and extinction retrieval/expression (day 2).
We provide further evidence that high trait anxiety is associated with the inability to take immediate advantage of environmental safety cues (cued and contextual), which might represent a promising trans-diagnostic marker for different anxiety disorders. Consequently, the incorporation of methods to optimize inhibitory learning in current cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treatments might open up a promising avenue for precision medicine in anxiety disorders.
We did not include patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders.