Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Schema Content for a Threatening Situation: Responses to Expected and Unexpected Events

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Schema Content for a Threatening Situation: Responses to Expected and Unexpected Events

Article excerpt

Although previous research has identified the components of event-based schemas, or scripts, for threatening situations in anxious individuals, no studies have examined how scripts change when anxious individuals are faced with a deviation in the expected sequence of events. In the present study, blood fearful (n = 49) and nonfearful (n = 48) participants assigned subjective units of discomfort (SUD) ratings to the events comprising the script for getting a bleeding cut on the arm. Subsequently, they listed a series of 10 events that would occur following 1 of 2 unexpected events that interrupted the script. Results indicated that blood fearful participants assigned higher SUD ratings to scripted events than nonfearful participants. Participants in the two groups generated largely similar sequences of events that would occur after the unexpected events. However, relative to nonfearful participants, blood fearful participants listed more events characterized by negative affect. These results suggest that blood fearful individuals are able to recover from deviations from the standard script for a common but threatening situation, although their associated emotional experiences are more distressing than those of nonfearful individuals.

Keywords: fear; schema; cognition; phobia

According to Beck's cognitive theory of anxiety (Beck & Clark, 1997; Beck & Emery, 1985), "danger" schemas facilitate the biased processing of threat-relevant information in anxious individuals. That is, danger schemas influence the manner in which anxious individuals allocate their attentional resources, interpret ambiguous material, and recall experiences with threat. Although the schema construct plays a central role in cognitive theories of anxiety, surprisingly little research has been conducted to identify its properties and verify that the anxiety-relevant schemas of anxious individuals are indeed different than the anxiety-relevant schemas of nonanxious individuals. Not only would empirical research designed to evaluate aspects of schema content confirm and extend cognitive theories of anxiety, it also would point to specific therapeutic interventions that could reduce the strength of danger schemas, which, theoretically, would decrease threat-relevant information-processing biases hypothesized to maintain and exacerbate anxious symptoms.

One difficulty in investigating anxiety-relevant schema content is that the operational definition of a schema is vague in cognitive theory. Beck and his colleagues often equate anxietyrelevant schemas with dysfunctional beliefs, such as "something terrible could happen" (Beck & Emery, 1985). Although self-report inventories have been developed to measure dysfunctional beliefs and self-statements that stem from these beliefs (e.g., Glass, Merluzzi, Biever, & Larsen, 1982; Kendall & Hollon, 1989), they may not yield accurate data due to demand effects, memory distortions, and/or selective reporting influenced by avoidance or social desirability (MacLeod, 1993). In contrast, the nature of schemas also has been investigated by cognitive psychologists, some of whom regard schemas as scripts or ordered sequences of events that occur in common situations (Schank & Abelson, 1977). In a typical script study, participants are instructed to list the events that usually occur in common situations, such as going to a restaurant, and composite scripts are compiled by including events listed by at least 25% of participants (Bower, Black, & Turner, 1979). It is reasoned that those composites represent the group's schema for that situation because they are composed of elements generated by a substantial percentage of the sample.

Using this rationale, Wenzel and her colleagues (Wenzel, 2004; Wenzel & Golden, 2003; Wenzel & Holt, 2000, 2003a) recruited samples of anxious and nonanxious participants and instructed them to list the events that usually occur in common but threatening situations, such as presenting a speech in studies comparing socially anxious and nonanxious participants or getting an immunization in studies comparing blood fearful and nonfearful participants. …

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