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safety signals, anxiety, emotion regulation, fear, psychophysiology

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Improved understanding of fear inhibition processes can inform the etiology and treatment of anxiety disorders. Safety signals can reduce fear to threat, but precise mechanisms remain unclear. Safety signals may acquire attentional salience and affective properties (e.g., relief) independent of the threat; alternatively, safety signals may only hold affective value in the presence of simultaneous threat. To clarify such mechanisms, an experimental paradigm assessed independent processing of threat and safety cues. Participants viewed a series of red and green words from two semantic categories. Shocks were administered following red words (cue+). No shocks followed green words (cue‐). Words from one category were defined as safety signals (SS); no shocks were administered on cue+ trials. Words from the other (control) category did not provide information regarding shock administration. Threat (cue+ vs. cue‐) and safety (SS+ vs. SS‐) were fully crossed. Startle response and ERPs were recorded. Startle response was increased during cue+ versus cue‐. Safety signals reduced startle response during cue+, but had no effect on startle response during cue‐. ERP analyses (PD130 and P3) suggested that participants parsed threat and safety signal information in parallel. Motivated attention was not associated with safety signals in the absence of threat. Overall, these results confirm that fear can be reduced by safety signals. Furthermore, safety signals do not appear to hold inherent hedonic salience independent of their effect during threat. Instead, safety signals appear to enable participants to engage in effective top‐down emotion regulatory processes.

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Psychophysiology, v. 53, issue 8, p. 1193-1202

This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Hefner, K. R., Verona, E. and Curtin, J. J. (2016), Emotion regulation during threat: Parsing the time course and consequences of safety signal processing. Psychophysiol, 53: 1193-1202, which has been published in final form at 10.1111/psyp.12660. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.

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