Do you get anxious about being anxious? If a nervous-sounding “yes” just popped into your head, then this one’s for you.
The fear of anxiety itself is a real condition, which clinicians call “anxiety sensitivity.” People with high anxiety sensitivity are fearful of the physical sensations and symptoms that accompany anxiety ― the cold sweats, racing heart rate, dizziness, shallow breathing and that fluttery feeling you get in your stomach. Beyond being unpleasant, the condition is a known risk factor for depression, panic disorders and anxiety itself.
While the symptoms of anxiety aren’t fun for anyone, people who are lower in anxiety sensitivity generally don’t perceive them as harmful or dangerous.
“For most people, sweaty palms and an increasing heart rate are simply unpleasant symptoms that occur in stressful situations; for others, these same symptoms are interpreted as a sign of impending doom,” Dr. Nancy Frasure-Smith, who led a 2010 Canadian study on anxiety sensitivity in cardiac patients, explained at the time. “People with high anxiety sensitivity tend to magnify the potential consequences of their anxiety symptoms, leading to an increase in anxiety and its symptoms in a spiralling increase of fear and worry.”
Here are four signs that you might have high anxiety sensitivity:
The sensation of a racing heart freaks you out.
At the heart of anxiety sensitivity is fear of the uncomfortable physical symptoms that come with anxiety and a belief that these symptoms pose an immediate threat to the individual’s own well-being.
“It’s the tendency to interpret anxious sensations as catastrophic—it really is fear of fear,” Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist at Boston University, recently wrote in Scientific American.
Even if the symptoms come from more benign causes ― like drinking a little too much coffee or going for an extra-long run ― they can still feel scary to someone with anxiety sensitivity.
When you feel anxiety coming on, you immediately think total breakdown.
For someone with high levels of anxiety sensitivity, the onset of anxious feelings triggers the fear of a more serious problem. In some ways, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: This added fear can lead to a more extreme anxiety reaction ― although not, in most cases, a full-on breakdown.
“Someone with high anxiety sensitivity might fear the dizziness that comes with being anxious, thinking it means they’re going to snap and have a mental breakdown,” Hendriksen wrote. “Another might fear the pounding heart that comes from walking into a room of strangers, thinking a heart attack is around the corner.”
You have panic attacks.
Prone to panic? It could be due to high anxiety sensitivity. The trait is a major risk factor for both individual panic attacks and longer-term panic disorders. The more anxiety sensitivity a person has, the more likely that person will have a panic response to a difficult or uncomfortable bodily sensation.
You’re a hypochondriac.
The DSM-5 describes hypochondriasis as the “preoccupation with fears of having a serious medical illness based on misinterpretations of benign (or minor) bodily sensations.” To a hypochondriac, a headache means a brain tumor, a quickened heartbeat means a heart attack, and a mole means melanoma. Any symptom, real or perceived, can send the individual down the rabbit hole of frantic Google searching and Yahoo message-board posting.
Hypochondriasis ― in common parlance, hypochondria ― revolves around fearful and anxious feelings. Although it’s not technically considered an anxiety disorder, it is closely related to anxiety sensitivity.
What can you do if you have anxiety sensitivity?
Hendriksen’s first recommendation is exercise. Physical activity has proved to ease anxiety sensitivity, and it offers a way to become more comfortable with unpleasant bodily sensations.
“We interpret those sensations differently when we exercise,” Hendriksen wrote. “We pull apart the discomfort from the negative interpretation. If anything, when we feel the shaky muscles and ragged breathing of exercise, we feel positive: virtuous, accomplished, and strong.”
When you feel like you need a good reminder there’s nothing to fear but fear itself, lace up your running shoes, hit the gym or head to a yoga class. It’ll help you refocus on the normal, healthy ways that your body expresses itself.