How ‘Safety Learning’ Can Help Overcome Anxiety


In a new article that reviews current research on fear and anxiety, CUNY scientists describe why we need to start thinking of safety as more than just the absence of threat. If researchers reframe the idea of safety learning, they could uncover new ways to help people with certain anxiety disorders.

The article, authored by Ph.D. student Hyein Cho and Professors Ekaterina Likhtik and Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, both of Hunter College and The Graduate Center, was published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.

Imagine two people give a presentation in front of their coworkers, and receive harsh criticism from their boss. While one presenter might shrug it off and move on, the other might generalize their negative experience and start to fear any sort of public speaking. They might even start to feel anxiety in response to a podium, a projector screen, or other objects that relate to the event.

This is called overgeneralized fear (OGF), and it’s a symptom of anxiety. The problem is that current “gold standard” anxiety treatments, whether therapies or pharmaceuticals, don’t work for everyone. In the review, the authors write that neuroscientists need to delve into the biology of how safety learning is disrupted in the brains of people with OGF, and at the same time, need to reconceptualize this kind of learning as a distinct phenomenon.

Currently, the majority of OGF research focuses on fear learning—how we come to associate negative outcomes with certain cues, and how we respond to them—rather than safety learning. In fact, safety learning is often considered just a component of fear learning. This blurs the difference between things that signal the absence of danger (say, a creaking noise turns out to be a neighbor opening their door) and things that actually signal safety (like entering a building that will provide shelter from a thunderstorm).

While scientists have done studies with this approach on animals, there is far less research on humans. It’s worth putting more effort into, the authors say, because preliminary research suggests that improved safety learning could in fact benefit those with anxiety, and help people to stop avoiding harmless things they associate with danger.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Ekaterina Likhtik (Assistant Professor, Biology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2
Tracy Dennis-Tiwary (Professor, Psychology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2