Repeated Exposure to Perceptual Illusion Challenges Reduces Anxiety Sensitivity Cognitive Concerns: Evidence From a Randomized Clinical Trial

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Background: Anxiety sensitivity cognitive concerns (ASCC), or fear of cognitive dyscontrol sensations, confers risk for anxiety and mood psychopathology. Recent work demonstrated that novel perceptual challenges generated by a head mounted display can elicit fear among those with elevated ASCC. This suggests that interoceptive exposure to perceptual challenges may offer a means to mitigate ASCC. This study was designed to evaluate whether repeated exposure to novel perceptual challenges can reduce ASCC, and if these effects are stronger among those experiencing greater negative emotionality as a proxy for individuals likely to present for treatment.

Methods: Participants with elevated ASCC (N = 57) were randomized to one of three experimental conditions utilizing a head-mounted display. In the rotations condition (n = 20), participants viewed themselves spinning in a circle. In the opposite directions condition (n = 20), participants turned their head while the camera moved in the opposite direction creating dissonance in their visual field. In the control condition (n = 17), participants completed a series of simple arithmetic problems.

Results: Participants in the rotation condition, relative to control, reported significant reductions in ASCC from pre- to post-exposure and these effects were strongest for those with elevated negative affect. The main effect of the opposite directions exposure on post-treatment ASCC was non-significant, but follow-up analyses revealed that reductions in ASCC were observed among those with elevated negative affectivity.

Discussion: Perceptual illusion challenges appear to have utility for reducing ASCC through repeated exposure. There was evidence for the perceptual illusion exercises, particularly the rotations condition, specifically reducing ASCC, making this challenge the first we are aware of that specifically targets ASCC-related concerns.

Limitations: As a proof-of-concept study, the present sample was not recruited for clinically-significant psychopathology, and only a brief follow-up was utilized. Future research should utilize a longer follow-up and test if these exposures mitigate ASCC-relevant psychopathology among clinical samples.

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Behavior Therapy





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