What is going on with anxiety sensitivity? What does it become?
Anxiety comes in a lot of flavors (PTSD, OCD, GAD, SAD, panic disorder, and specific phobias) so understanding which type is present is critical to delivering the best treatment. And of course you prioritize according to what is most immediately affecting an individual’s life if more than one type is causing duress.
A lot of treatments tend to focus on cognitive behavioral therapy, where the model holds that changing a thought leads to changing a feeling, and subsequently a behavior, which is not particularly beneficial in most of these cases as a first line of treatment. Many people who experience anxiety disorders cannot even verbalize what they are afraid of, much less stop the thoughts.
A more efficacious approach would be to encourage and teach better tolerance of the feelings, not on changing the thoughts that led to them. Instructing individuals on first tolerating and then evaluating their thoughts leads to better control over the anxiety.
In other words, the goal would be to change the relationship the person has with the their fear, or what has become their “fear of fear”, which will reduce their stress and help the person become more flexible in their thinking. It is this fear of fear that is termed ‘anxiety sensitivity.’ I am reminded of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous admonition that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This is especially true for those who suffer with chronic anxiety.
This fear of fear, with one example expressed as an absolute dread of having a panic attack, is so deeply engrained that it has its own neurological pathway in the brain, well worn and deeply rutted. This forms an incredibly swift route to panic as the go-to emotion that is no longer even questioned by the individual. For them it just is.
Learning to question it is a significant goal in treatment, and crucial to ongoing management of the fear. This takes dedication and commitment on the part of the client, because it is hard to go through the fear! But for those of you who suffer, please know that it absolutely can be done.
It is a challenging process, but you can’t grow and strengthen muscle without challenging it with a greater weight, just as anxiety cannot be managed without challenging it through trial and error to build emotional resilience.