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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