Anxiety Complicates Asthma Management

New research explores the way in which sensitivity to anxiety can exacerbate a medical diagnosis (asthma) causing the medical condition to be much more serious.

Anxiety sensitivity, in simple terms, is a fear of fear. But when people with anxiety sensitivity also have asthma, their suffering can be far more debilitating and dangerous because the anxiety undermines a person’s ability to self-manage asthma.

A new study explores this issue and recommends treatment to help decrease asthma symptoms.

The study by Alison McLeish, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of psychology, Christina Luberto, and Emily O’Bryan, will be presented at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) 49th Annual Convention.

The researchers recruited 101 college undergraduates who reported having asthma. The experiment aimed to mimic asthma symptoms by having study participants breathe in-and-out through a narrow straw, about the width of a coffee-stirrer straw.

As expected, people who reported higher anxiety sensitivity not only reported greater anxiety during the straw-breathing task, but also experienced greater asthma symptoms and decreased lung function.

“Anxiety sensitivity not only helps explain why we see higher rates of anxiety disorders, but also why anxiety is associated with poorer asthma outcomes,” says McLeish.

As a result, the study recommended interventions for anxiety sensitivity — such as exposure therapy — aimed at reducing the anxiety.

Exposure therapy is a technique in behavior therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. It involves the exposure of the patient to the feared object or context without any danger, in order to overcome their anxiety.

During the study, safety controls were in place for the straw-breathing exercise and all participants were required to have their inhalers with them in case they experienced an asthma attack. Students were told they could stop at any time during the straw-breathing exercise.

The presentation is part of a symposium titled, “Motivation Escape and Avoidant Coping: The Impact of Distress Intolerance on Health Behaviors.” The research will be published in an upcoming special issue of the journal Behavior Modification and is currently featured ahead of the print issue in the journal’s online first section.

Source: University of Cincinnati
Anxious man photo by shutterstock.