FSU study links anxiety sensitivity to future psychological disorders

N. Brad Schmidt (left) and John Maner

People who get scared when they experience a pounding heart, sweaty palms or dizziness—even if the cause is something as mundane as stress, exercise or caffeine—are more likely to develop a clinical case of anxiety or panic disorder, according to a Florida State University researcher.

While other researchers have proposed a connection between this so-called "anxiety sensitivity" and a range of anxiety problems, the study by FSU psychology professors N. Brad Schmidt and Jon Maner and University of Vermont Professor Michael Zvolensky provides the first evidence that anxiety sensitivity is a risk factor in the development of anxiety disorders. The study will be published in the December issue of the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

"The findings offer an exciting possibility for prevention of anxiety and panic reactions among high-risk individuals," Schmidt said, explaining that the key is to teach people cognitive and behavioral skills to reduce their anxiety sensitivity so that it does not lead to a serious problem.

People with anxiety sensitivity perceive their physical responses to certain triggers as a sign of imminent personal harm. They not only fear their reactions, they also fear that other people will detect their anxiety, which only serves to increase their anxiety and puts them at risk for a panic attack, according to Schmidt.

While a single panic attack does not indicate development of a psychological disorder—in fact, some estimates indicate that about 20 percent of people will experience a spontaneous panic attack at some point in their lives—repeated occurrences do, he said.

"When people start having repeated panic attacks, plus a lot of what we call panic-related worry—they worry when the next attack will occur and they start avoiding things due to worry—this is when someone has panic disorder," Schmidt said.

People with panic disorder suffer attacks of intense feelings of terror that strike suddenly with no warning. Some sufferers have a feeling of being out of control or even on the verge of death. They soon develop a "fear of fear" and may begin to restrict their activities in an attempt to prevent more attacks.

The study followed 404 young adults over a two-year period as part of an anxiety prevention study. After completing interviews and a battery of self-report measures, including the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI), eligible participants then were randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group.

The researchers found that those who scored high on the ASI during the initial assessment—whether they were assigned to the prevention or the control group—were nearly twice as likely to have suffered spontaneous panic attacks and to have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder by the time of the follow-up two years later.

The project was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.