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What Is Anxiety Sensitivity, and Do I Have It?

Shaking and numbness and sweat, oh my! What do we call it when what we fear is fear itself? None other than the little-known, but hugely important concept of anxiety sensitivity. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains what it is and offers three tips to take it down.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #123
anxiety sensitivity

If you see yourself here, the good news is that you have a shot at prevention.  Here are three ways to lower your anxiety sensitivity (and your risk down the line):

Tip #1: Exercise. Is there anything exercise can’t do? It gets us in shape, makes us live longer, improves our mood, and, stay with me here: gets us used to being uncomfortable, which is crucial for reducing anxiety sensitivity.

What happens to your body when you exercise? A pounding heart, sweating, feeling short of breath, shaky muscles, turning red. What does that remind us of? None other than anxiety.

But here’s the key: we interpret those sensations differently when we exercise. 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.

So each time we exercise, we get used to feeling discomfort that’s really similar to anxiety, but interpreting it as something temporary, controllable, and even gratifying.  

For example, a 2008 study found that a two-week exercise program resulted in greater reductions in anxiety sensitivity than two weeks of carrying on as usual. And, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but adding my line of work, cognitive behavioral therapy, didn’t add anything above and beyond—plain old exercise was just as effective.

Another study similarly found that both a low- and high-intensity aerobic exercise program reduced anxiety sensitivity after just a week, but those who were assigned the high-intensity condition got the best bang for their buck, with their sensitivity reducing further and faster. 

The take home? The way to still the mind is to move the body.

Tip #2: Think back to childhood. Did you love the playground swings as a kid? Would you wait in line again and again to go on roller coasters or the Tilt-a-Whirl? Did you love the thrill of going faster and faster on your bike or skateboard? Or maybe you tried the “dizzy bat” game (no, not the drinking version—we’re talking about childhood here) where you put one end of a baseball bat on the ground, your forehead on the other end, spun around, and then tried to walk?

If you used to do any of these things, you probably remember them with a smile. And therein lies the secret. Making yourself feel woozy and your stomach feel flip-floppy used to be fun.

Now, you don’t have to get out your old plastic wiffle bat, but try this for starters: do some gentle neck rolls. Drop your right ear toward your right shoulder, and then, in one slow, fluid motion, rotate your head so your chin rolls to your chest, then roll your left ear to your left shoulder, and finally tilt your head back toward the ceiling. Gently round and round you go. Focus on the sensation of movement and slight dizziness, but think of it as relaxing or amusing, rather than threatening.

For more practice, you could spin around in a desk chair, take a turn on the swings at your local playground, or anything else that makes you say, “Wheeeeee!” where you might previously have said, “Yikes!”

Whatever you try, the key is to reinterpret body sensations as exciting or harmless, rather than as a sign of impending disaster.

Tip #3: Rethink the consequences.  When you find your mind jumping to the worst-case scenario, think about what other, more benign things might also be possible. For example, I had a client who felt dizzy whenever she looked down from a height, like a bridge or a balcony, and interpreted her dizziness as an existential crisis: “Does this secretly mean I want to jump off the bridge? What if I freak out and and kill myself?” By contrast, when she started thinking about her symptoms as simple vertigo, her fear disappeared.

For you, try to interpret body symptoms differently. For example: “When I can’t keep my mind on a task, I might be developing dementia,” becomes, “When I can’t keep my mind on a task, I must have a lot on my plate.”  Or, “When I’m really tired after a long day, it makes me feel fragile and vulnerable to burnout,” becomes, “When I am really tired after a long day, I know I’ll feel better with a bath and good night’s sleep.”

To sum it all up, to break the cycle of anxiety sensitivity, build up your tolerance for body sensations, think of them as benign or even fun, you’ll go from sensitive to next in line for the Tilt-a-Whirl.

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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
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