How Anxiety Disorders Develop: The “Spread” of Fear

How Anxiety Disorders Develop: The “Spread” of Fear

Clients often ask, “Why do I have an anxiety disorder?” or “How did this happen to me?”. The Behavioral Associates Los Angeles Mental Health Psychiatric Resources for Anxiety and Mood Disorders Symptomsdevelopment of anxiety disorders is complex combination of genetic predispositions and learning experiences. However, this post will discuss one factor that distinguishes individuals with an anxiety disorder from those who do not develop anxiety disorders: fear generalization. Fear generalization refers to the process by which fear “spreads” from one object, sensation or situation to others that are similar to it. For example, a soldier returning home from combat may have fear when driving because his convoy was attacked on a road in the war zone. As this fear spreads to more and more situations, the individual may report greater impact on his daily life.

Studying Fear Generalization in the Lab

Psychologists often study these processes in laboratory experiments so they can better understand the precise mechanisms that give rise to fear generalization, what genes and areas of the brain might be responsible, and how prevention and treatment strategies might reduce fear generalization. For example, in a simple laboratory experiment individuals are taught to “fear” a circle of a particular size presented on a computer screen. Every time the circle appears, the individual receives a brief shock. Later, when presented with circles that vary in size from the original one, most individuals will show some fear generalization to circles that are close in size to the one that was paired with the shock. However, research has consistently demonstrated that individuals with anxiety disorders show more fear generalization. That is, they report fear to many different size circles compared to individuals without an anxiety disorder[1].

Fear generalization does not just occur to objects or situations that are perceptually similar, but also occurs with objects that are just conceptually related to one another. For example, in another laboratory experiment individuals might be repeatedly shocked when a particular object, such as picture of spider web, is on the screen. They are then tested with a picture of a spider. Individuals report fear of the spider picture even though it was not paired with the shock; it was simply conceptually related to the picture of the spider web[2].

What Does This Process Look Like With Anxiety Disorders?

In social phobia, individuals may report fear and anxiety to numerous social situations including parties, dating, presentations, and initiating conversations. The development of social phobia is complex, but might entail having a negative social experience, witnessing others being judged negatively, or being repeatedly told that these situations may lead to social rejection when you were younger. Once this association is formed, it may spread to other situations simply because they are conceptually related (e.g., they are all social situations involving evaluation).

In panic disorder, an individual may fear that panic attacks will lead to a heart attack. Sensations that are similar to a panic attack (increased heart rate due to caffeine or exercise) may start to elicit fear and anxiety. As fear and anxiety spread to more sensations, objects and situations individuals may also resort to more and more avoidance in an effort to manage their anxiety. The combination of fear generalization and increased and increased avoidance is one of the defining features of an anxiety disorder.

How Can Treatment Help?

Exposure therapy is the gold standard treatment approach for anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In exposure therapy, your therapist will work with you to gradually face objects, sensations, thoughts and situations that elicit fear so you can learn that negative outcomes don’t occur. Your therapist will also work with you to allow this new, “safety learning” to spread to more and more situations in order to reduce fear generalization.

Michael Treanor, Ph.D., Psychological Assistant | Behavioral Associates Los Angeles

Behavioral Associates Los Angeles is a group of cognitive-behavioral therapists specializing in the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. To find out more, contact us by phone at 310-205-0523 or by email at

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[1] Lissek, S., Biggs, A. L., Rabin, S. J., Cornwell, B. R., Alvarez, R. P., Pine, D. S., & Grillon, C. (2008). Generalization of conditioned fear-potentiated startle in humans: Experimental validation and clinical relevance. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 678-687.

[2] Dunsmoor, J. E., White, A. J., LaBar, K. S. (2011). Conceptual similarity promotes generalization of higher order fear learning. Learning & Memory, 18, 156-160.