Automatic Associations and Panic Disorder: Trajectories of Change Over the Course of Treatment

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Cognitive models of anxiety and panic suggest that symptom reduction during treatment should be preceded by changes in cognitive processing, including modifying the anxious schema. The current study tested these hypotheses by using a repeated measures design to evaluate whether the trajectory of change in automatic panic associations over a 12-week course of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is related to the trajectory of change in panic symptoms. Individuals with panic disorder (N = 43) completed a measure of automatic panic associations—the Implicit Association Test (A. G. Greenwald, D. E. McGhee, & J. L. K. Schwartz, 1998), which reflects elements of the schema construct—every 3 weeks over the course of therapy and measures of panic symptoms each week. Dynamic bivariate latent difference score modeling not only indicated that automatic panic associations changed over the course of CBT for panic disorder but showed these changes were correlated with symptom reduction. Moreover, change in automatic panic associations was a significant predictor of change in panic symptom severity. These findings permit inferences about the temporality of change, suggesting that cognitive change does in fact precede and contribute to symptom change.

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