Anxiety sensitivity (AS) refers to the fear of behaviors or sensations associated with the experience of anxiety. Bodily sensations related to anxiety are misattributed as a harmful experience, causing more intense anxiety or fear. But when individuals with AS are also affected by asthma, their suffering can be far more incapacitating and threatening because they have difficulty managing their asthma.
In a recent study presented during the 49th Annual Convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) (Nov. 12-15) held in Chicago, a team of researchers explored this health issue and recommends treatment to help decrease asthma symptoms. The study, which involved a population of 101 college undergraduates who reported having asthma, was conducted by Alison McLeish, associate professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati; Christina Luberto, doctoral graduate from UC and clinical fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital; and Emily O’Bryan, a graduate student in the UC Department of Psychology.
The experiment was designed to mimic symptoms of asthma by having study participants breathe in-and-out through a narrow straw, about the width of a coffee-stirrer straw.
The results revealed that students who reported higher anxiety had greater anxiety during the straw-breathing task. The results also showed that students with greater anxiety also experienced a decreased lung function and greater asthma symptoms.
“Anxiety sensitivity not only helps explain why we see higher rates of anxiety disorders, but also why anxiety is associated with poorer asthma outcomes,” said McLeish in a recent news release.
These findings prompted the researchers to recommended interventions for AS – including a cognitive-behavioural exposure therapy technique — with the aim of reducing the anxiety.
Exposure therapy helps people to confront their fears. When people are fearful of something, they tend to avoid the feared objects, activities, or situations. Although this avoidance might help reduce feelings of fear in the short term, over the long term it can make the fear become even worse. In such situations, a psychologist might recommend a program of exposure therapy in order to help break the pattern of avoidance and fear. In this form of therapy, psychologists create a safe environment in which to “expose” individuals to the things they fear and avoid. The exposure to the feared objects, activities, or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance.
During the straw-breathing exercise, the researchers conducted all the safety controls measures. This stipulated that all students taking part in the experiment were required to have their inhalers with them in case they experienced an asthma attack. Moreover, the researchers told the students they could stop the straw-breathing task at any time.
The UC presentation during the ABCT Convention was part of a Nov. 14 symposium titled, “Motivation Escape and Avoidant Coping: The Impact of Distress Intolerance on Health Behaviors.”
The study will be published in the journal Behavior Modification and is currently featured ahead of the print issue in the journal’s online first section.