Generalization and Extinction of Concept-BasedPain-Related Fear

  • Eveliina Glogan
    Research Group Behavioral Medicine, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands
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  • Christine van Vliet
    Research Group Behavioral Medicine, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Research Group Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Rani Roelandt
    Research Group Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
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  • Ann Meulders
    Address reprint requests to Ann Meulders, PhD, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, KU Leuven, Tiensestraat 102, Box 3726, 3000 Leuven, Belgium.
    Research Group Behavioral Medicine, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

    Research Group Health Psychology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium

    Center for Excellence on Generalization Research in Health and Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
    Search for articles by this author
Published:October 05, 2018DOI:


      In chronic pain, pain-related fear seems to overgeneralize to safe stimuli, thus contributing to excessive fear and avoidance behavior. Evidence shows that pain-related fear can be acquired and generalized based on conceptual knowledge. Using a fear conditioning paradigm, we investigated whether this concept-based pain-related fear could also be extinguished. During acquisition, exemplars of 1 action category (conditioned stimuli [CSs]; eg, opening boxes) were followed by pain (CS+), whereas exemplars of another action category were not (CS–; eg, closing boxes). Participants reported more pain-related fear and expectancy toward exemplars of the CS+ category compared with those of the CS– category. During generalization, fear and expectancy spread to novel exemplars (generalization stimuli [GSs]) of the CS+ category (GS+), but not to those of the CS– category (GS–). During extinction, exemplars of both categories were presented in the absence of pain. At the end of extinction, participants no longer reported elevated fear or expectancy toward CS+ exemplars compared to CS– exemplars. These findings were not replicated in either the eye-blink startle or skin conductance measures. This is the first study to demonstrate extinction of concept-based pain-related fear, thus providing evidence for the potential of extinction-based techniques in the treatment of conceptual pain-related fear.


      This study demonstrates the acquisition, generalization, and extinction of concept-based pain-related fear in healthy participants. These are the first results to show that concept-based pain-related fear can be extinguished, suggesting that conceptual relationships between fear-inducing stimuli may also be important to consider in clinical practice.

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