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Biased attention to threat in paediatric anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, specific phobia, separation anxiety disorder) as a function of ‘distress’ versus ‘fear’ diagnostic categorization

  • A. M. Waters (a1), B. P. Bradley (a2) and K. Mogg (a2)

Structural models of emotional disorders propose that anxiety disorders can be classified into fear and distress disorders. Sources of evidence for this distinction come from genetic, self-report and neurophysiological data from adults. The present study examined whether this distinction relates to cognitive processes, indexed by attention bias towards threat, which is thought to cause and maintain anxiety disorders.


Diagnostic and attention bias data were analysed from 435 children between 5 and 13 years of age; 158 had principal fear disorder (specific phobia, social phobia or separation anxiety disorder), 75 had principal distress disorder (generalized anxiety disorder, GAD) and 202 had no psychiatric disorder. Anxious children were a clinic-based treatment-seeking sample. Attention bias was assessed on a visual-probe task with angry, neutral and happy faces.


Compared to healthy controls, children with principal distress disorder (GAD) showed a significant bias towards threat relative to neutral faces whereas children with principal fear disorder showed an attention bias away from threat relative to neutral faces. Overall, children displayed an attention bias towards happy faces, irrespective of diagnostic group.


Our findings support the distinction between fear and distress disorders, and extend empirically derived structural models of emotional disorders to threat processing in childhood, when many anxiety disorders begin and predict lifetime impairment.

Corresponding author
* Address for correspondence: Dr A. M. Waters, School of Applied Psychology, Griffith University, Queensland, 4122, Australia. (Email:
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Psychological Medicine
  • ISSN: 0033-2917
  • EISSN: 1469-8978
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