Exploring the Physiological Root of Anxiety Sensitivity

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

Related articles:
The Birth of Anxiety
Deep Breathing and Guided Imagery
Imagine Not Worrying: How to Stop Scaring Yourself

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  • Lilly


    July 25th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    I am always pretty curious as to how this kind of sensitivity to anxiety begins. For some it seems that it is something that is always there for them and a part of them; while for others it is something that does not develop until after something traumatic happens in life, some kind of trigger that makes them hyper sensitive to things around them. I think that it would be much easier to treat someone who develops this sensitivity a little later on over those who are born that way. At least for the ones who have a specific trigger point you can identify that and help them work through all of the anxiety that this has caused them.

  • langley


    July 26th, 2012 at 4:29 AM

    don’t you think that because the things that cause this in patients are going to be so wide and varied, that it will be hard to even know how to prevet that kind of reaction in them? we all have our own little things that intimidate us

  • Matthew Seligman

    Matthew Seligman

    October 14th, 2013 at 5:55 PM

    I think I get this a lot. The things I recognise: it’s to do with events/interruptions that are unexpected, rather than to do with how “frightening” etc they are. I love in japan, where earthquakes are never unexpected, and when they happen I don7t get startled. But a small little unexpected thing, or interruption, can produce a really exaggerated “startle”. And in response to the comment above, I definitely didn’t when I was younger, it’s a sequela to stress/traumas that happened in adutl life.

  • Matthew Seligman

    Matthew Seligman

    October 14th, 2013 at 5:56 PM

    sorry about all the typos….I “live” in Japan, and “adult” LIFE…

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