COLUMBUS, Ohio -- While an occasional bout of anxiety is normal, people who are particularly sensitive to anxiety symptoms run a greater risk of developing psychological problems or even physical illness, new research suggests.
Researchers evaluated 1,296 Air Force Academy cadets during basic training and tested them for anxiety sensitivity -- the degree to which a person believes that symptoms of anxiety, like shortness of breath, may have negative health consequences. Results showed that those cadets who scored higher on an anxiety sensitivity test were more likely to end up in counseling during basic training.
"Anxiety sensitivity is a pattern of thinking that can affect health," said Norman Schmidt, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "Just having this type of thinking pattern puts a person at greater risk for developing physical or mental impairment."
Results showed that women cadets with high anxietysensitivity were particularly likely to end up in counseling during the highly stressful time of basic training.
The researchers found that these women cadets visited counselors more than twice as often as did males with similar anxiety levels and females with low anxiety sensitivity.
Schmidt conducted the study with Darin Lerew of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. The study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.
The researchers evaluated the cadets during five weeks of mandatory basic training. The cadets filled out a series of questionnaires addressing the prevalence of anxiety sensitivity and other psychological risk factors. At the end of basic training, the researchers measured how often the cadets had visited a counselor, had gone to the clinic for a physical illness or had been absent from activity due to illness.
In addition to anxiety sensitivity, the researchers evaluated two other psychological risk factors -- body vigilance and discomfort intolerance -- that could lead to psychological or physical impairment.
Body vigilance is the attention people give to bodily sensations, such as symptoms that may indicate health problems. Discomfort intolerance is the degree to which a person can accept unpleasant physical sensations. It goes beyond pain to include all types of unpleasant physical symptoms, such as pressure and numbness.
The results showed that people with high levels of body vigilance were more likely to visit the hospital during basic training, and more likely to report being sick. People who scored higher on ratings of discomfort intolerance also took more sick days. While body vigilance and discomfort intolerance were independent risk factors for impairment, both seemed to also contribute to anxiety sensitivity.
"Someone who is more sensitive to internal bodily changes is going to be at greater risk for identifying a benign internal symptom as dangerous," Schmidt said. "And someone who doesn't tolerate unpleasant bodily sensations very well could be at risk for developing an anxiety disorder."
Schmidt said the fact that anxiety affected women more than men may have something to do with how males and females interpret stress.
"Women are at greater risk for anxiety disorders than men and there is some evidence to suggest that gender differences in this particular type of thinking pattern (anxiety sensitivity) may be part of the reason why," he said.
Schmidt said the study's findings could apply to other stressful situations outside of basic training, such as a change in job situation or lifestyle or working under a tight deadline.
"The presence of these risk factors could lead to an increased likelihood of health-seeking behaviors due to exaggerated concerns about physical and mental well-being," Schmidt said. "Many people with such concerns are likely to seek out assistance without realizing they're experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression."
The research was supported by a grant from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
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