People who are prone to anxiety, worry, and panic attacks are often high in anxiety sensitivity (AS), the fear of experiencing uncomfortable sensations such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, a tightening of the chest, dizziness, and sweating. Although these sensations can be unpleasant, they are not dangerous; rather, they are the result of the nervous system’s normal and healthy response to arousal. For example, heart rate goes up and we may get out of breath when we exercise, when we bound up a flight of stairs, or when we are excited about something. We may also feel dizzy because we skipped breakfast in the morning and now need something to eat. While people low in AS are able to recognize that these sensations are normal and harmless, people high in AS become overwhelmed and start to panic, especially when they are experiencing these kinds of sensations in an unpredictable way. People high in AS fear that uncomfortable arousal-related sensations will cause them to faint and be humiliated, lose their mind, or have a heart attack. It is common for people high in AS to begin to actively avoid situations that may increase arousal. For example, they may avoid wearing clothing that will cause them to feel overheated or they may avoid working out. High AS is detectable by questionnaire and has consistently been shown to be a factor that predisposes people to anxiety disorders, depression, and drug and alcohol dependence. Researchers don’t know exactly why some people are high in anxiety sensitivity while others are not, but it has been suggested that a combination of genetics and previous life experiences reinforces the fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations (Schmidt et al., 2006). AS is believed to be a trait or characteristic that is relatively stable, but the good news is that AS is modifiable through therapy. One therapy that has been shown to reduce AS is called psychoeducation. In psychoeducaton, people are provided with information to correct misconceptions they may have about their body sensations. This involves teaching people the nervous system to help people understand why, for example, their heart can beat fast sometimes.
Emma MacDonald and her colleagues at Ryerson University wanted to know whether training people to develop more helpful mental habits can also reduce their AS. People who are high in AS have been shown to have interpretation biases that may play a role in the fear of anxiety. Interpretation biases are a type of mental habit or “shortcut” that we often unknowingly use to process new or ambiguous information. When we are presented with new, ambiguous information, we tend to assign it with a value or meaning that is consistent with our pre-existing beliefs, ideas, and explanations. Research suggests that when people high in AS experience uncomfortable physical sensations, they misinterpret these sensations and conclude immediately that they are a sign that something bad is happening, rather than arriving at a more neutral explanation. For example, when feeling lightheaded and weak, a person high in AS might conclude that this is a sign that they are about to faint; whereas, a person low in AS would consider whether they just need to eat something.
In their study (published in 2013 in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research) MacDonald and colleagues randomly assigned (like flipping a coin) people scoring high on a measure of AS to a 1-session computerized game-like task designed to train people to adopt more neutral interpretations of their sensations or to a control condition that had some of the same training elements, but was not expected to change AS. The researchers found that 30 minutes of mental habits training was associated with a decrease in scores on the measure of AS 48 hours later; whereas the control condition did not show a decrease in AS. MacDonald and colleagues are currently following up this work with a more extensive study looking at whether 4 sessions of the same mental habits training leads to longer lasting improvements in AS and anxiety.