Priming associations between bodily sensations and catastrophic misinterpretations: Specific for panic disorder?

Dirk Hermans*, Klara De Cort, Daphne Noortman, Debora Vansteenwegen, Tom Beckers, Adriaan Spruyt, Koen Schruers

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Cognitive models assume that panic disorder is characterised by a tendency to misinterpret benign bodily symptoms (e.g. breathlessness) in a catastrophic fashion (e.g. suffocation). This is a central part of the cognitive model which presents a core focus for treatment. Several studies have supported this hypothesis. These studies have, however, almost always relied on self-report. In addition to susceptibility to biases (e.g. distortions of memory), a limitation of research based on verbal report is its inability to capture the spontaneous/automatic nature that is attributed to these catastrophic interpretations. The present paper reports on two experiments in which a priming procedure was used to test the hypothesis that panic disorder is characterised by spontaneous catastrophic interpretations and whether this effect is 'specific' to panic disorder. In line with predictions from the cognitive model, it was observed in the first experiment that the panic group demonstrated facilitated responses to trials consisting of a 'symptom' prime and a 'catastrophic outcome' target (e.g. breathlessness suffocate). Similar effects were not observed for an anxious control group and a nonclinical control group, supporting the specificity of this effect. Interestingly, however, significant priming effects were observed for a group of mental health professionals (part of the healthy control group) who had no history of panic disorder. Subsequently, this unexpected observation was explicitly addressed in a second experiment, which confirmed the findings of Experiment 1. Together, these results suggest that associations between mental representations of benign bodily symptoms and catastrophic outcomes might develop as part of professional knowledge and experience, and should not necessarily be viewed as pathogenic. Theoretical and clinical implications are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)900-908
JournalBehaviour Research and Therapy
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2010


  • Panic disorder
  • Associative priming
  • Misinterpretation
  • Cognitive models

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