Threat of suffocation and defensive reflex activation

Peter J. Lang, Bethany C. Wangelin, Margaret M. Bradley, Francesco Versace, Paul W. Davenport, Vincent Costa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

24 Scopus citations


The current study examined emotional reflex reactions of participants threatened with respiratory distress caused by imposing a resistive load at inspiration. Cues signaling threat (breathing MAY be difficult) and safe periods were intermixed while startle reflexes, heart rate, skin conductance, and facial EMG activity were measured. Compared to safe cues, threat cues elicited significant startle potentiation, enhanced skin conductance, heightened corrugator EMG changes, and pronounced "fear bradycardia" consistent with defensive activation in the context of threatened respiratory dysfunction. These data indicate that anticipating respiratory resistance activates defensive responding, which may mediate symptomatology in patients with panic and other anxiety disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)393-396
Number of pages4
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 1 2011
Externally publishedYes



  • Fear
  • Respiratory distress
  • Startle
  • Threat versus safe

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)

Cite this

Lang, P. J., Wangelin, B. C., Bradley, M. M., Versace, F., Davenport, P. W., & Costa, V. (2011). Threat of suffocation and defensive reflex activation. Psychophysiology, 48(3), 393-396.