Anxiety Sensitivity: Overcoming the Fear of Fear
I want to share an idea that can be extremely helpful in recovering from anxious suffering. This is the idea of anxiety sensitivity, or fear of fear.
If you have anxiety sensitivity, it’s important to understand how it works so that you can keep it—and anxiety—from ruling your life. Fortunately, once recognized, it is something that can be righted and guarded against.
What is Anxiety Sensitivity?
Anxiety sensitivity is the fear of fear.
There’s a subset of the population who react to their anxiety more fearfully than others. These people—and I include myself in this group—are more likely to get wrapped up in their anxiety. They’re more likely to be anxious about their anxiety, and then get caught in the fear-of-fear cycle that keeps many anxiety disorders alive.
This fear of fear is called anxiety sensitivity.1“Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is the fear of anxiety sensations, which arises from beliefs that these sensations have harmful somatic, social, or psychological consequences.” – Taylor, S. (Ed.). (1999). Anxiety sensitivity: Theory, research, and treatment of the fear of anxiety. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1999-02128-000
Where does the fear of fear come from? It’s likely a combination of genetics2Stein, M. B., Jang, K. L., & Livesley, W. J. (2002). Heritability of social anxiety-related concerns and personality characteristics: a twin study. The Journal of nervous and mental disease, 190(4), 219-224. (it often runs in families) and unhelpful beliefs that anxiety is harmful to the person in some way.
How to Know if You Have Anxiety Sensitivity
Here are some examples of anxiety sensitivity and related beliefs.
- You believe your anxiety is harmful.
- You fear becoming anxious.
- You think that anxiety causes mental illness or will make you go crazy.
- You fear losing control because of your anxiety.
- You worry that others will notice your anxiety.
- You dread the sensations of being anxious.
- You’re anxious about being anxious.
Are any of these true for you? If so, then you may be more sensitive to anxiety than the average person.
How Anxiety Sensitivity Makes You Anxious
People with anxiety sensitivity believe that their anxiety means something bad.
For example, when someone with panic disorder feels their heart beat more quickly, they might think it means that they’re going to have a heart attack.
Or, when someone has anxiety about their relationship, they may think that that it means that they’re in the wrong relationship or with the wrong person.
There are three big problems with believing that anxiety means something bad:
1. It’s not true. (Anxiety doesn’t have to mean anything.)
2. It can cause the person to become afraid of their anxiety.
3. It can lead to avoidance behaviors, which also increase anxiety.
The person who’s afraid they’re having a heart attack is more likely to get anxious when their heart beats faster. This creates a snowball effect in which feelings of anxiety lead to fear which leads to more feelings of anxiety.
If this happens over and over, the person can spiral out into a panic attack, pervasive anxiety, or a retreat from activities that matter to them (such as avoiding relationships because they cause relationship anxiety).
Anxiety Doesn’t Mean Anything
While I believe it’s useful to see anxiety as a messenger, I also think it’s helpful to see anxiety as not meaning anything. Sometimes, anxiety is just a feeling, and a feeling doesn’t mean anything—it’s just a feeling.
Sometimes anxiety is just a feeling.
Muscle tension doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be muscle tension—a sensation.
Nausea doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be nausea—a sensation.
Likewise, an anxious thought doesn’t have to mean anything. It can just be an anxious thought.
To put it another way, the person who has recovered from anxious suffering can feel anxious without getting anxious about feeling anxious. They just feel the anxiety, and that’s that. It’s not drawn out or added to. It happens, and then it passes on.
Anxiety Sensitivity Can Change
If you see yourself as having anxiety sensitivity, I don’t want you to see it as a life sentence. It doesn’t have to rule your life. Anxiety sensitivity is more like a tendency that certain people can slip into if they don’t practice right thinking or acceptance. It can be quieted.
How does it change? Through acceptance, exposure, and right thinking, to name a few ways.
For example, you can replace fear-inducing beliefs like the ones listed earlier with healthier, more realistic beliefs. Some examples are:
- I can be anxious without losing control.
- Anxiety isn’t harmful.
- It’s fine that I’m anxious right now.
Additionally, when you practice accepting your anxiety, you get better at meeting these anxious feelings without adding fear to them.
What This Means for You
If there’s a punchline to this story, it’s this: anxiety is not the problem. Anxiety about anxiety is the problem. Anxiety disorder = persistent anxiety about anxiety.
This is really great news. To recover from anxious suffering, you don’t have to get rid of your anxiety. That would be such a difficult task, probably impossible, and not even advisable given all of the benefits of anxiety.
To recover from anxious suffering, all you have to do is learn to have anxious feelings without fearing or avoiding them. You have to keep that initial fire from spreading by not throwing more logs on the flame.
When you practice accepting your anxiety like this, you undo the mechanics of anxiety sensitivity and learn to welcome (or at the very least not avoid) your anxiety.
Put simply, you learn to make friends with your fear.