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Discuss the Theory of Evolutionary Preparedness and How It May Apply to Specific Phobia, Social Phobia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

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Direct genetic causation of illness and abnormal behavior is rare. Recent research has indicated that many illnesses are now understood in terms of the interaction of hereditary and environmental factors, the diathesis-stress model. According to this theory, certain genes or hereditary vulnerability give rise to a diathesis or a constitutional predisposition. When an individual’s predisposition is then combined with certain kinds of environmental stress, illness may result

With diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer, both hereditary and environmental factors play a role.

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Suffering from a phobia can be a debilitating and distressing condition. Phobias induce physiological responses and can impact upon daily routines, inhibiting life experiences and opportunities. While more people are likely to have unpleasant experiences with non-biological stimuli there is research to suggest that phobias have a biological specificity i.e. most phobias are based upon a fear of biological stimuli. Science has attempted to understand two things in regards to phobias; which mechanisms activate a phobic response and how they can be treated. Initial scientific evidence has explained the origin of phobias in terms of Pavlovian classical conditioning, identifying them as conditioned human responses. Seligman, however, questioned differences between fears conditioned in the laboratory and phobias, and instead proposed a contemporary model of fear learning which he called preparedness theory. According to preparedness theory, phobias are based in the evolutionary programming of humans and they are primed to respond to fear specific stimuli which threaten survival e.g. spiders and snakes. Classical conditioning suggests that automatic reflexes, like blinking or salivation, can be conditioned to respond to any neutral stimulus. Initially, Pavlov’s research focused on digestion in dogs

While doing this he noted two things. Firstly, that the dogs would often begin to salivate prior to the presentation of food and, secondly, that this was a non-conscious behaviour. He quickly realized that salivation was no longer due to an automatic, physiological process. Pavlov then investigated how these conditioned responses were learned. Through a series of experiments, he set out to provoke a conditioned response to a previously neutral stimulus. He selected food as the unconditioned stimulus (US), a stimulus that naturally and automatically evokes a response. The ticking sound of a metronome was chosen to be the neutral stimulus. First he exposed the dogs to the sound of the metronome, then immediately presented the food. After undertaking several trials, Pavlov recorded that the dogs began to salivate upon hearing the metronome. Therefore, the previously neutral stimulus, the metronome, had become a conditioned stimulus (CS) that then provoked the conditioned response (CR), salivation. Pavlov’s findings were based upon trials with animal subjects and assumed that the conditioning of fear and phobias followed a similar process in both animals and humans. Thus, neutral stimuli could be conditioned similarly in both animals and humans.

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The human brain, it has been written, is an “anticipation machine, and ‘making future’ is the most important thing it does”. The ability to use past experiences and information about our current state and environment to predict the future allows us to increase the odds of desired outcomes, while avoiding or bracing ourselves for future adversity. This ability is directly related to our level of certainty regarding future events – how likely they are, when they will occur, and what they will be like. Uncertainty diminishes how efficiently and effectively we can prepare for the future, and thus contributes to anxiety (Barlow DH., 2000). Although this relationship between uncertainty about future negative events and anxiety makes intuitive sense, there has been a disconnect between this conceptualization of anxiety and most neuroimaging investigations of clinical anxiety disorders. The predominant focus of this research has been on heightened emotional reactivity to aversive events; however, the tasks commonly used in this research might not fully engage the psychological processes that are at the heart of anxious pathology – that is, the anticipatory cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes executed to avoid or reduce the impact of a potential threat. These anticipatory processes serve an adaptive function when executed at a level commensurate with the likelihood and severity of threat, but can be maladaptive when conducted excessively. Comprehensive information about the probability, timing, and nature of a future negative event promotes more efficient allocation of these resources, but such information is rarely available owing to the inherent uncertainty of the future. Uncertainty better captures subjective aspects of one’s internal state, and thus appears more frequently in the literature on human anxiety disorders, whereas unpredictability is used more frequently in laboratory studies with controlled conditions (Gilbert DT., 2006)

While we discuss both constructs, our primary focus is on uncertainty, which is inextricably linked to the phenomenological experience of anxiety arising from unpredictable future events.

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By and large, theorists typically account for obsessive-compulsive-related disorders by using the same kinds of explanations that have been applied to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Similarly, clinicians typically treat clients with these disorders by applying the kinds of treatment used with OCD, particularly antidepressant drugs, exposure and response prevention, and cognitive therapy

With their addition to the DSM, it is hoped that they will be better researched, understood, and treated.

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Gilbert DT. Stumbling on Happiness. Random House; New York: 2006.

Rosen JB, Schulkin J. From normal fear to pathological anxiety. Psychol Rev. 1998;105:325–350.

Borkovec TD. The role of cognitive and somatic cues in anxiety and anxiety disorders: Worry and relaxation-induced anxiety. Anxiety and the anxiety disorders. 1985:463–478.

Davis M, Walker DL, Miles L, Grillon C. Phasic vs sustained fear in rats and humans: Role of the extended amygdala in fear vs anxiety. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2010;35:105–135.

Barlow DH. Unraveling the mysteries of anxiety and its disorders from the perspective of emotion theory. Am Psychol. 2000

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