Priority Communication| Volume 70, ISSUE 5, P415-424, September 01, 2011

Aversive Imagery in Panic Disorder: Agoraphobia Severity, Comorbidity, and Defensive Physiology


      Panic is characterized as a disorder of interoceptive physiologic hyperarousal, secondary to persistent anticipation of panic attacks. The novel aim of this research was to investigate whether severity of agoraphobia within panic disorder covaries with the intensity of physiological reactions to imagery of panic attacks and other aversive scenarios.


      A community sample of principal panic disorder (n = 112; 41 without agoraphobia, 71 with agoraphobia) and control (n = 76) participants imagined threatening and neutral events while acoustic startle probes were presented and the eye-blink response (orbicularis oculi) recorded. Changes in heart rate, skin conductance level, and facial expressivity were also measured.


      Overall, panic disorder patients exceeded control participants in startle reflex and heart rate during imagery of standard panic attack scenarios, concordant with more extreme ratings of aversion and emotional arousal. Accounting for the presence of agoraphobia revealed that both panic disorder with and without situational apprehension showed the pronounced heart rate increases during standard panic attack imagery observed for the sample as a whole. In contrast, startle potentiation to aversive imagery was more robust in those without versus with agoraphobia. Reflex diminution was most dramatic in those with the most pervasive agoraphobia, coincident with the most extreme levels of comorbid broad negative affectivity, disorder chronicity, and functional impairment.


      Principal panic disorder may represent initial, heightened interoceptive fearfulness and concomitant defensive hyperactivity, which through progressive generalization of anticipatory anxiety ultimately transitions to a disorder of pervasive agoraphobic apprehension and avoidance, broad dysphoria, and compromised mobilization for defensive action.

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