Anxiety sensitivity refers to fear of the signs and symptoms of anxiety based on the individual’s belief that the signs of anxiety will have harmful consequences, wrote Xi Pan, LICSW, MPA, of McLean Hospital, Belmont, Mass., and colleagues.
Anxiety sensitivity can include cognitive, physical, and social elements: for example, fear that the inability to focus signals mental illness, fear that a racing heart might cause a heart attack, or fear that exhibiting anxiety signs in public (e.g., sweaty palms) will cause embarrassment, the researchers said.
Previous studies have found associations between anxiety sensitivity and panic attacks, and anxiety sensitivity has been shown to contribute to worsening symptoms in patients with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and trauma-related disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder. However, “anxiety sensitivity has not been studied in individuals with complex dissociative disorders such as dissociative identity disorder (DID)” – who often have co-occurring PTSD and depression, the researchers said.
Inthe Journal of Psychiatric Research, the authors analyzed data from 21 treatment-seeking adult women with histories of childhood trauma, current PTSD, and dissociative identity disorder. Participants completed the Anxiety Sensitivity Index (ASI), Beck Depression Inventory-II, Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, Multidimensional Inventory of Dissociation, and PTSD Checklist for DSM-5.
Anxiety sensitivity in cognitive, physical, and social domains was assessed using ASI subscales.
Pearson correlations showed that symptoms of depression were significantly associated with anxiety sensitivity total scores and across all anxiety subscales. However, no direct associations appeared between anxiety sensitivity and PTSD or severe dissociative symptoms.
In a multiple regression analysis, the ASI cognitive subscale was a positive predictor of depressive symptoms, although physical and social subscale scores were not.
The researchers also tested for an indirect relationship between anxiety sensitivity and dissociative symptoms through depression. “Specifically, more severe ASI cognitive concerns were associated with more depressive symptoms, and more depressive symptoms predicted more severe pathological dissociation symptoms,” they wrote.
The findings were limited by the inability to show a direct causal relationship between anxiety sensitivity and depression, the researchers noted. Other limitations included the small sample size, use of self-reports, and the population of mainly White women, which may not generalize to other populations, they said.
However, the results represent the first empirical investigation of the relationship between anxiety sensitivity and DID symptoms, and support the value of assessment for anxiety sensitivity in DID patients in clinical practice, they said.
“If high levels of anxiety sensitivity are identified, the individual may benefit from targeted interventions, which in turn may alleviate some symptoms of depression and dissociation in DID,” the researchers concluded.
The study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Julia Kasparian Fund for Neuroscience Research. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.