Human defensive freezing is associated with acute threat coping, long term hair cortisol levels and trait anxiety.
The detection and anticipation of threat facilitates innate defensive behaviours including freezing reactions. Freezing in humans is characterized by reductions in body sway and heart rate and limited evidence suggests that individual differences in freezing reactions are associated with hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity and anxiety. However, previous measurements of human freezing reactions were largely based on passive threat contexts where natural variations in adaptive threat coping could not be assessed. In a well powered sample (N=419), we studied individual differences in anticipatory freezing reactions, by measuring body sway and heart rate, during an active shooting task where shooting decisions had to be taken under threat of shock. We linked freezing measures to subsequent actions and predictors of anxiety-related psychopathology, including accumulated long-term (3 months) hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) and trait anxiety. The anticipation of threat of shock elicited significant body sway- and heart rate reductions consistent with freezing. Whereas both freezing-related reductions in body sway and heart rate were associated with faster correct shooting decisions, body sway reductions were additionally related to more impulsive shooting (false alarms). Individual differences in threat-related reductions in body sway but not heart rate were further associated to lower HCC and higher trait anxiety. The observed links between freezing and subsequent defensive actions as well as predictors of stress-related psychopathology suggest the potential value of defensive freezing reactions as somatic marker for stress-vulnerability and resilience.
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