The biological basis of anxiety sensitivity

Anxiety sensitivity is the fear of arousal-related sensations, arising from beliefs that the sensations will have adverse consequences such as death, insanity, or social rejection.

You can think about it as second fear. Whereas first fear is the automatic fight-or-flight reaction that arrives in response to a perceived threat, second fear is the interpretation that the sensations themselves are a threat.

Anxiety sensitivity amplifies the automatic anxiety reaction. The tendency to respond to arousal-related sensations with terror is heritable. Sensitivity runs in families and the thinking patterns that perpetuate terror are socialized.

Taking responsibility for your anxiety disorder requires that you learn what sensitizes you and make a plan for those situations.The best way to disarm anxiety sensitivity is to get accurate information about your sensations. Pay attention to the sensations that scare you and ask about them in group.

Here are some common sensitizing situations and what you can say to yourself when they happen:

  • Hungry – “My mind might be sticky because I’m hungry. I should have a snack before I fuel or act on these thoughts.”
  • Angry – “My mind is building a case, so I probably feel angry. In the presence of anger, rather than fueling my case, I should calm my body down. Then, I should decide whether my anger is signal or noise, and if I need to take any action.”
  • Lonely – “I am alone and I’m starting to ruminate about it. I probably feel lonely. I should allow this feeling, and either reach out to someone or make a plan to reach out to someone soon.
  • Tired – “My mind might be sticky because I’m tired. I should let me thoughts pass until I have a chance to rest.”
  • Illness, Stress, Menstruation – “My mind is stickier due to (fill in the blank). It’s okay to be patient with myself as I try not to make my anxiety worse.”

Several members are going through major life transitions right now including relocation, job or school changes, death or illness of a family members, and romantic break-ups, engagements, and weddings. All of these transitions are major sources of sensitization. Extreme emotions in both directions are incredibly sensitizing. Expect this sensitization and care for yourself by not making it worse additional criticism and fear.

Sometimes accurate information about anxiety disarms it. For instance, learning that you will not faint during an anxious moment can disarm your fear about what might happen. When accurate information and perspective about anxiety doesn’t disarm it, switch to tolerating uncertainty.

As an example, if after you realize you feel angry, you still feel anxious (and anxious about feeling anxious), try to invite it in and accept the uncertainty in the experience.

You could say to yourself, “It’s okay that I’m having the feeling of anger, anxiety, and anxiety about anxiety. This is a big opportunity to teach myself that I don’t need to do anything to make this go away.”

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