Automaticity in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder

Bethany A. Teachman, Jutta Joormann, Shari A. Steinman, Ian H. Gotlib

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


In this paper we examine the nature of automatic cognitive processing in anxiety disorders and Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Rather than viewing automaticity as a unitary construct, we follow a social cognition perspective (Bargh, 1994) that argues for four theoretically independent features of automaticity: unconscious (processing of emotional stimuli occurs outside awareness), efficient (processing emotional meaning uses minimal attentional resources), unintentional (no goal is needed to engage in processing emotional meaning), and uncontrollable (limited ability to avoid, alter or terminate processing emotional stimuli). Our review of the literature suggests that most anxiety disorders are characterized by uncontrollable, and likely also unconscious and unintentional, biased processing of threat-relevant information. In contrast, MDD is most clearly typified by uncontrollable, but not unconscious or unintentional, processing of negative information. For the anxiety disorders and for MDD, there is no sufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about efficiency of processing, though early indications are that neither anxiety disorders nor MDD are characterized by this feature. Clinical and theoretical implications of these findings are discussed and directions for future research are offered. In particular, it is clear that paradigms that more directly delineate the different features of automaticity are required to gain a more comprehensive and systematic understanding of the importance of automatic processing in emotion dysregulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-603
Number of pages29
JournalClinical Psychology Review
Issue number6
StatePublished - Aug 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Anxiety
  • Automaticity
  • Depression
  • Efficient
  • Unconscious
  • Uncontrollable
  • Unintentional

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Clinical Psychology


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