An Experimental Examination of Emotional Avoidance in General Anxiety Disorder: Supporting a New Theory of Emotional Contrast Avoidance

Open Access
Llera, Sandra Jean
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
April 21, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Michelle G. Newman, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • Thomas Borkovec, Committee Member
  • Pamela Cole, Committee Member
  • Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, Committee Member
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • emotion
  • emotional processing
  • emotional avoidance
  • emotion regulation
An important emphasis of the recent literature on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is improved understanding of the function of emotion dysregulation in the etiology and maintenance of this disorder. The purpose of the present study is to propose and test a new model for conceptualizing emotional sequelae in GAD, which is defined as the Contrast Avoidance Model of Worry. The model states that individuals with GAD are more sensitive to unexpected negative events, and that worry (the key pathological feature of GAD) functions to prolong and maintain a negative emotional state, thereby avoiding an unexpected, sharp shift (or contrast) in negative emotions. To test this model, the present study examined the effect of worry on physiological and subjective negative emotionality, both during worry inductions and in response to negative and positive emotional stimuli. Participants with GAD and nonanxious controls were randomly assigned to engage in worry, relaxation, or neutral inductions prior to sequential exposure to each of three emotion-inducing film clips designed to elicit fear, sadness, and happiness. Self reported emotionality was assessed at baseline and following each induction and exposure, and physiological arousal (both sympathetic and parasympathetic activity) was measured throughout. Results demonstrate that worry led to an increase in negative emotionality that was sustained across negative exposures. Also, participants with GAD described this experience as more helpful in emotional coping than did controls, providing partial support for the Contrast Avoidance model. A contextual understanding of this model in relation to extant models of emotional functioning in GAD is provided.