High responsivity to threat during the initial stage of perception in repression: a 3 T fMRI study

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Repression designates coping strategies such as avoidance, or denial that aim to shield the organism from threatening stimuli. Derakshan et al. have proposed the vigilance–avoidance theory of repressive coping. It is assumed that repressors have an initial rapid vigilant response triggering physiological responses to threat stimuli. In the following second stage repressors manifest avoidant cognitive biases. Functional magnetic resonance imaging at 3T was used to study neural correlates of repressive coping during the first stages of perception of threat. Pictures of human faces bearing fearful, angry, happy and neutral expressions were briefly presented masked by neutral faces. Forty study participants (20 repressive and 20 sensitizing individuals) were selected from a sample of 150 female students on the basis of their scores on the Mainz Coping Inventory. Repressors exhibited stronger neural activation than sensitizers primarily in response to masked threatening faces (vs neutral baseline) in the frontal, parietal and temporal cortex as well as in the cingulate gyrus, basal ganglia and insula. There was no brain region in which sensitizers showed increased activation to emotion expression compared to repressors. The present results are in line with the vigilance–avoidance theory which predicts heightened automatic responsivity to threatening stimuli in repression.

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