Study suggests anxiety sensitivity influences the interpretation of physiological responses to stress

Anxiety sensitivity — meaning the fear of anxiety-related symptoms — doesn’t appear to associated with a heightened biological reactivity to stress, according to new research in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. Instead, it appears to be linked to how people interpret their physiological reactions.

“Stressful situations are a natural part of our day to day lives. We might find ourselves giving a talk in front of intimidating colleagues, having to make small talk with people we don’t know, or even just having a lot of our ‘to-do’ lists,” said study author Travis Wearne, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New South Wales.

“The way we regulate ourselves in response to these situations in important for our well-being and functioning. However, we know that there is a lot of individual variability in how people cope to these ‘stressors’ – some can approach these with ease while others get really stressed when put in these situations.”

“We were interested in what could be driving such a range of responses. In this study, we looked at a construct called anxiety sensitivity, which describes one’s fear of the physical symptoms that accompany anxiety, such as increases in heart rate or sweating, whereby more those with greater anxiety sensitivity perceive and misinterpret these autonomic sensations as dangerous. We therefore looked to see whether this could be a factor in regulating a person’s response to stress.”

In the study, 58 participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test, an experimentally verified stress-inducing scenario in which the participants are asked at short notice to give a speech before an audience, and are given other anxiety-inducing instructions.

Before the test, the participants completed a measure of anxiety sensitivity and were fitted with equipment to record their heart rate and electrical skin conductance.

The researchers found that those with higher anxiety sensitivity reported tended to report having a worse mood after the stressful task. But when it came to physiological responses, there was no significant difference between those with high and low anxiety sensitivity.

“We found, as we would expect, that people did have a physiological response when they were put in a stressful situation — heart rate and sweat activity increased while the experience of anger and tension also increased in response to stress,” Wearne explained to PsyPost.

“What is interesting, however, is that those with higher anxiety sensitivity reported even greater feelings of tension in response to stress compared to those with low anxiety sensitivity, but there was no difference between groups with respect to their biological response. This suggest that anxiety sensitivity specifically interacts with the interpretation of stress rather than being a genuine experience of heightened physiology in response to stress.”

All research includes some limitations — and the current study is no exception.

“It’s important to recognise that this study was conducted on an undergraduate student population and we used a mixed biological sample of males and females. Studies examining stress responses typically isolate the biological sex of participants to control for the effect of hormones, oral contraceptives, and menstruation on physiological outcomes. As a result, the age of the participants limits how much we could generalise the findings across all age groups and we do not know whether the results differ between males and females,” Wearne said.

“Additionally, our sample did not have any history of mental health condition. It may be that anxiety sensitivity interacts with physiology only for those with psychopathology, although further research is needed to be sure.”

“So, what’s the take home message here? Well, all of us – irrespective of our status, experience and exposure – have physiological reactions when faced with a stressful situation. But some of us will interpret these reactions as being worse than others. However, there is no true physiological basis to these beliefs, and it’s your own personal thoughts and interpretations at play!” Wearne added.

The study, “Anxiety sensitivity moderates the subjective experience but not the physiological response to psychosocial stress“, was authored by Travis A. Wearne, Abbie Lucien, Emily M. Trimmer, Jodie A. Logan, Jacqueline A. Rushby, Emily Wilson, Michaela Filipčíková, and Skye McDonald.