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emotional processing theory

a theory proposing a hypothetical sequence of fear-reducing changes that is evoked by emotional engagement with the memory of a significant event, particularly a trauma. The theory is based on the concept of a fear structure, a type of mental framework for reacting to threat that includes information about a feared stimulus (e.g., a snake), about physiological and behavioral responses (e.g., rapid heartbeat, sweating), and about the meaning of the stimulus and response elements (e.g., the snake is poisonous and will bite me and I am afraid of it). Although most fear structures accurately represent legitimate threats, others become distorted: Individuals do not reflect sufficiently upon the event initially and thus do not successfully evoke and cope with the associated emotions, so that harmless stimuli become seen as dangerous and act to trigger excessive physiological reactions, deliberate avoidance of memories of the event, emotional withdrawal, and other maladaptive behaviors.

The existence of such erroneous fear structures originally was proposed in response to the difficulties of traditional learning theories in explaining intrusion symptoms and fear in posttraumatic stress disorder. According to this conceptualization, which has since been expanded to other anxiety disorders, treatment (i.e., prolonged exposure therapy) should be designed to provide information that is incompatible with the pathological elements of a specific fear structure. Thus, the repetitive exposure to the event memory in a safe environment in which the threat is not realized gradually decreases emotional responding until the fear structure changes to accommodate this new, more accurate information (e.g., If I am not anxious, the situation cannot be so bad). [proposed in 1986 by U.S. psychologists Edna B. Foa (1937–  ) and Michael J. Kozak (1952–  )]

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Psychology term of the day

March 3rd 2024



n. a tendency to comply with the wishes or obey the orders of others. —submissive adj.