Positive Affect Protects Against Deficient Safety Learning During Extinction of Fear of Movement-Related Pain in Healthy Individuals Scoring Relatively High on Trait Anxiety

  • Ann Meulders
    Address reprint requests to Ann Meulders, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, Box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
    Research Group on Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Michel Meulders
    Centre for Information Management, Modeling and Simulation, KU Leuven (campus HUB), Brussels, Belgium

    Research Group on Quantitative Psychology and Individual Differences, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Johan W.S. Vlaeyen
    Research Group on Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Department of Clinical Psychological Science, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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      From a treatment perspective, it is highly relevant to pinpoint individual vulnerability factors for resistance to exposure treatment in highly fearful chronic pain patients. Previous fear conditioning research showed that healthy individuals scoring relatively high on trait anxiety display sustained fear to safety cues during extinction. In the context of fear of movement-related pain, this intriguing question has been largely neglected so far. Even more importantly, positive psychological traits such as trait positive affect may function as protective factors against the spreading of fear to safe movements and improve exposure treatment outcomes. In this study, healthy participants completed a trait anxiety and trait positive affect questionnaire and underwent acquisition and extinction of fear of movement-related pain using an experimental voluntary movement paradigm. During acquisition, one movement (CS+) was paired with a painful stimulus and another movement was not (CS−). During extinction, the CS+ was no longer reinforced. Results show failure of fear inhibition to the CS− during extinction in healthy individuals scoring relatively high on trait anxiety or relatively low on positive affect. These findings seem to suggest that safety learning is more vulnerable in healthy people with a high anxious disposition and/or relatively lower levels of positive affect. In addition, this is the first study to show that the negative impact of high trait anxiety on fear inhibition to safety cues during extinction can be countered by high levels of positive affect. These findings may have important clinical implications.


      Both low positive affect and high trait anxiety are associated with impaired fear inhibition to nonpainful movements during fear extinction. Interestingly, high levels of positive affect buffer against the negative impact of trait anxiety. Increasing positive affect during exposure may counter the effects of trait vulnerabilities and improve treatment outcomes.

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