Context-Specific Freezing and Associated Physiological Reactivity as a Dysregulated Fear Response

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The putative association between fear-related behaviors and peripheral sympathetic and neuroendocrine reactivity has not been replicated consistently. This inconsistency was addressed in a reexamination of the characterization of children with extreme fearful reactions by focusing on the match between distress behaviors and the eliciting context. Eighty 24-month-old children were observed in 4 mildly threatening contexts, and the relations among different measures of fear-related behaviors, reactive and basal cortisol levels, and baseline cardiac measures of heart rate, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and preejection period (PEP) were examined. The hypothesis that only behaviors under the less threatening context would be associated with higher cortisol and sympathetic cardiac activity was confirmed; only task-specific freezing behavior predicted higher reactive and basal cortisol levels and resting PEP measured 1 week later. Implications for the conceptualization of dysregulated fear behaviors in the classification of extremely fearful children are discussed.

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