Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is a term used to describe an increased reaction to anxiety inducing feelings such as fear, worry, or threat. It is not uncommon for individuals with symptoms of generalized anxiety (GAD), agoraphobia, social anxiety, or posttraumatic stress to exhibit AS. The underlying factors that contribute to AS are still unknown but are thought to be related to impaired prepulse inhibition (PPI) and an accentuated startle response. Although it has been established that these characteristics are present in individuals with clinical conditions related to anxiety, it has yet to be investigated in nonclinical samples. Therefore, Katherine A. McMillan of the Department of Psychology and Anxiety and Illness Behaviors Laboratory at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada, recently led a study to assess the AS in a sample of 50 individuals with no history of mood problems or anxiety within the previous month.
The participants were categorized into high risk AS and nonrisk AS based on information gathered upon intake. After evaluation, McMillan found that the high-risk AS participants had elevated startle responses and diminished PPI when compared to the non-high risk AS participants. This is significant because this is the first study of its kind to identify individuals at risk for anxiety problems based on these factors alone. Specifically, lower PPI, which is also common in individuals with obsessive-compulsive problems, can indicate a deficit in cue processing and lead to distorted stimuli response. This was evident in this sample based on the startle response found in those with low PPI. McMillian believes that the findings of this study are relevant and expand the field of research on physiological conditions that contribute to emotional arousal in individuals with or at risk for anxiety problems in the future. She added, “In short, the current finding may be reflective of the physiological substrate underlying elevated AS.”
McMillan, K. A., Asmundson, G. J. G., Zvolensky, M. J., Carleton, R. N. (2012). Startle response and anxiety sensitivity: Subcortical indices of physiologic arousal and fear responding. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029108
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