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Anxiety sensitivity: the common symptom that often goes unnoticed, even by those who have the condition

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Lauren Geall
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Anxiety sensitivity is an often misunderstood and unnoticed symptom of anxiety – but it plays a bigger part in the condition than many of us realise.

The number of people struggling with anxiety was on the rise before the pandemic, but the events of the last few years – including the ongoing cost of living crisis – have made things even worse; according to statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), there was a 25% rise in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression in the first year of the pandemic alone.

As such, there has also been an increase in conversations about anxiety and how to deal with it, from useful breathing techniques to potential triggers.

But despite all this increased awareness, there are still some aspects of anxiety which remain a mystery, even among those who deal with the condition.

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One of those lesser-known aspects of the condition is ‘anxiety sensitivity’, aka the fear that people with anxiety disorders develop towards their anxiety symptoms, notably the bodily sensations they develop as part of their anxiety. The main fears people with anxiety sensitivity experience are that those symptoms will either a) make their anxiety easily observed by others, or b) actually be the initial signs of a serious physical or mental illness.

“Many of those who deal with mental health issues, and anxiety disorders in particular, are not in fact concerned chiefly with objects, events, or issues in the world,” Noam Shpancer previously wrote in an article for Psychology Today. “Rather, they are afraid of the very bodily sensations of anxiety itself.”

Anxiety symptoms that could trigger anxiety sensitivity include irregular breathing, heart palpitations, trembling and sweating, all of which are pretty common indicators that the body’s fight-or-flight response has been triggered. However, for people who deal with anxiety sensitivity, these signs could trigger their anxiety further, exacerbating their bodily symptoms and leading them in to a negative cycle.

An woman experiencing anxiety
Anxiety sensitivity: do you have a “fear of fear”?

And while anxiety sensitivity is something primarily experienced by those who deal with anxiety disorders, anyone can deal with it from time to time. For example, if you have to do a big presentation at work, you may get nervous that people will see you trembling or your voice might quake in the middle of your speech, in turn making your anxiety worse.

However, there is some good news about anxiety sensitivity: just knowing it exists and understanding why it happens is helpful in reducing its impact on us. 

For example, in cases of high anxiety sensitivity, psychotherapists have found that teaching their client more about their diagnosis – and how their body responds to feelings of anxiety – helps them to understand more about what their bodily sensations actually mean, rather than speculating or worrying about the fact that they could be the first signs of a more serious illness. 

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Other coping techniques taught by psychotherapists include cognitive restructuring – where patients are taught to challenge their beliefs about their anxiety and the world around them – and emotional acceptance – where patients are taught to observe rather than act upon their emotional reactions by using mindfulness.

In this way, there are methods we can use to cope with anxiety sensitivity as we go about our day-to-day lives. However, if your anxiety sensitivity begins to impact your everyday life, you should consider seeking professional help.

As Daniel Fryer, psychotherapist and author of The Four Thoughts That F*ck You Up… and How To Fix Them, previously told Stylist, challenging our beliefs, thoughts and emotional reactions is a great way to cope with any symptoms of anxiety.

A woman dealing with anxiety
One way to cope with anxiety sensitivity is to challenge your emotional reactions.

“You have to keep [challenging your thoughts] repeatedly. It’s the only way to affect change,” he said. “You have to say to yourself, ‘well, if it isn’t helping me, then what is it doing? It’s making me anxious. Where is it making me anxious? Well, it’s stopping me from doing A or B, and it’s ridiculous – I don’t want to be like that anymore’.

“You have to keep going through that in your head – over and over again – until this way of thinking becomes a new established pattern.”

So next time you find yourself worrying about trembling in front of a crowd or panicking at dinner with your friends, try to remember that these are all typical symptoms of anxiety sensitivity. Being aware of the fact – and practicing mindfulness by observing the thoughts, feelings and emotional reactions you’re having in that moment – can really help you to keep this “fear of fear” under control. 

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This article was originally published in 2020 and has since been updated throughout.

Images: iStock/Getty/Unsplash

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

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