Disgust and Anxiety As Predictors of Posttraumatic Stress

Individuals who have high levels of anxiety sensitivity are afraid of conditions that they believe will be harmful. For instance, women who have experienced a miscarriage may experience anxiety sensitivity during subsequent pregnancies. Anxiety sensitivity has been shown to be present in many people with posttraumatic stress (PTSD), and in fact has been suggested to be a predictor of PTSD.

Another condition, disgust sensitivity, which creates an unpleasant association with the feeling of disgust, also has been implicated in the development and maintenance of anxiety issues. But until now, few studies have looked at how disgust sensitivity and anxiety sensitivity together and independently influence the development of PTSD. To explore this further, Bunmi O. Olatunji of the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University recently led a study examining the levels of disgust sensitivity, anxiety sensitivity, and emotional regulation in a sample of war veterans who had been exposed to trauma. He compared the sensitivities and levels of PTSD among 21 veterans with PTSD, 16 without PTSD, and 22 civilians without PTSD. The results revealed that the highest levels of anxiety sensitivity were present in the PTSD veterans. Olatunji also found that the non-PTSD veterans had the lowest levels of disgust sensitivity when compared to the other two groups.

Olatunji believes that in this sample of participants, disgust sensitivity served as a protective factor with respect to PTSD onset. He noted existing research has shown this same phenomenon in civilians, whereas individuals who have low disgust sensitivity toward physical violence, but not sexual violence, may not develop PTSD as a result of sexual assault but might be more at risk for PTSD if they were physically assaulted. “These preliminary findings suggest that anxiety sensitivity and disgust sensitivity may differ in the extent to which they represent risk or resilience factors for the development of PTSD,” Olatunji said. He believes that these findings add to the existing body of literature on emotional sensitivity and PTSD, but further research is necessary to determine if sensitivity is a cause or effect of trauma.

Olatunji, B. O., Armstrong, T., Fan, Q., Zhao, M. (2012). Risk and resiliency in posttraumatic stress disorder: Distinct roles of anxiety and disgust sensitivity. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029682

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  • LCDR JM Schwake

    LCDR JM Schwake

    September 10th, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Are there Military PTSD Clinics/Units for inhouse tx ?

  • carl m

    carl m

    September 10th, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    all very interesting how there can be these ties that you would not have initially categorized together

  • M.Brown


    September 10th, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Anxiety can definitely be a factor for PTSD.I cannot count the number of times something that has troubled me in the past makes me anxious when I encounter things connected to that particular thing.It is human nature I guess,you see something that has harmed you in the past you automatically feel anxious about the same.

    But I do not know how to overcome this.Are there any real techniques that can help someone like me?

  • Susan Pease Banitt

    Susan Pease Banitt

    September 10th, 2012 at 2:55 PM

    Yes, M. Brown. I wrote a book for people like us called The Trauma Tool Kit: Healing PTSD From the Inside Out. It’s in bookstores and online now! There are tons of real techniques to help you overcome traumatic stress!

  • Warren


    September 10th, 2012 at 3:26 PM

    I would think it would be critical to do more research, as is indicated, as to what causes one or the other- do you have more sensitivity to these things if you have experienced some sort of trauma in your life or are you simply more aware of the trauma and your recations to it because you are more anxiety or disgust sensitive?

  • M.Brown


    September 11th, 2012 at 12:48 AM

    Thank you so much Susan! I will definitely check out the book and just hope I am able to do what the book says-heal the PTSD from the inside out.Although I do not think it is full blown PTSD in me I can definitely do with a little less anxiety and more quality in my life!

  • rene


    September 11th, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    while its easy to see that ptsd can bring in anxiety about similar circumstances or objects or events,I think the lesson to be learnt here is early and effective treatment for ptsd so that this anxiety does not take over the person and prevent him from leading a normal life.

  • Aresenau


    September 12th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    Never have one time heard the term disgust sensitivity

    I know that I have pretty high levels of anxiety sensitivity and it will often feel like it is turning my head inside out when I get stressed and anxiious, also kind of sick to my stomach if you want to know the truth about it.

    Sometimes it will even sneak up on me in my dreams which makes sleep a less than comfortable state

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