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Brakel, L.A. Shevrin, H. (2005). Anxiety, attributional thinking, and the primary process. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 86(6):1679-1693.

(2005). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 86(6):1679-1693

Anxiety, attributional thinking, and the primary process

Linda A.W. Brakel and Howard Shevrin

In earlier publications, experimental evidence was provided for the existence of the primary vs. secondary process mental organization posited by Freud. A well-established cognitive categorization test based on attributional and relational similarity was found to map on to primary and secondary principles of mental organization respectively, thus offering the opportunity to test hypotheses drawn from psychoanalytic theory independent of the clinical situation. In prior work, primary process shifts occurred under three different conditions—all predicted by psychoanalytic theory: (1) when stimuli were (subliminal) unconscious; (2) when participants were 3-5 years of age; and (3) when tasks were implicit. In the current study, a fourth condition is examined dealing with the relationship of conscious anxiety to primary and secondary processes. In a naturalistic study, 120 patients waiting in medical center waiting rooms rated how anxious they felt on a 10-point scale and then completed a version of the categorization test alluded to above. Those who reported any anxiety at all showed a significant shift toward primary process categorization over those participants who rated themselves as calm. The implications of this fourth finding are discussed with respect to signal anxiety and symptom formation.

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