Ask anyone about their experiences with nerves or anxiety, and at some point, their physical symptoms will almost certainly come up: dizziness, sweating, pounding heart. But for a certain subset of people, these symptoms sit at the crux of a disorder called "anxiety sensitivity." So what is anxiety sensitivity? Well, essentially, it's a fear of fear.
In a blog post penned earlier this week (which I found via Science of Us), psychologist Dr. Ellen Henricksen noted that for some of her patients, the physical symptoms of fear can cause them to tailspin: The might become convinced that a pounding heart may be a sign of an impending heart attack, or that a dizzy spell may signal the start of a full-on "breakdown." They project these signs of anxiety as much larger, potentially fatal problems, which in turn causes additional anxiety, which prolongs the symptoms, and so on. It's a vicious cycle, and not only is it miserable to live with, it can also signal a person's risk of developing a more serious anxiety disorder, like PTSD.
Anxiety sensitivity first began to enter discussions about mental health in the mid-1980s, when it was believed that people developed disorders like agoraphobia (fear of places they feel trapped) through associative learning. After the first panic attack, they feared a recurrence, and so avoided any place they thought may be triggering.
After conducting research about people with agoraphobia, though, doctors began to make a distinction between panic disorders stemming from associative learning, and those that were based in cognitive beliefs — as in, a person who develops a Pavlovian response after their first panic attack, as opposed to a person believing that their chest tightening signals cardiac trouble, and fearing that. Anxiety sensitivity proves that anxiety is not equally motivating for every person; most can identify that it will dissipate once they're out of a stressful situation, but some view it as inherently threatening.
Because anxiety sensitivity comes wrapped in several really fun levels of panic and is difficult to articulate, it can be tough to diagnose. If reading this article is proving to be an immense breakthrough, and you're like, "Yes, people used to say that was just a dramatic hypochondriac," talk to someone. As Mister Rogers used to say (and yes, I use this as a #1 reason to explore therapy), "If it's mentionable, it's manageable."