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Habituation to contaminants : impact of threatening imagery Dorfan, Nicole Michelle


Habituation of fear is widely studied by both researchers and clinicians. One type of fear prevalent among adults is the fear of contamination. Predominant theoretical models relevant to contamination fears focus on the role of maladaptive cognitions in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. However, there is a paucity of research evaluating the impact of maladaptive cognitions on habituation to phobic stimuli. The current study examined the effect of three types of imagery (looming harm, static harm, and safety) on habituation to a contaminant in a normal college sample. Both static harm and looming harm imagery were expected to retard habituation compared with safety imagery. In addition, looming imagery was expected to impede habituation above and beyond the effects of static harm, in line with the theory of looming vulnerability. Results indicated that distress ratings for participants in the looming harm condition sensitized over time, whereas distress diminished in the static harm and safety groups. Thus, looming imagery may explain why some individuals experience lingering feelings of contamination after exposure, while others recover relatively quickly. In addition, cognitions and imagery regarding movement of phobic objects may be detrimental to those engaging in exposure therapy for anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder.

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