Is Anxiety Sensitivity a Risk Factor for Substance Use Disorders?


young adult anxiety

Struggles with anxiety and substance use problems often occur together, and as the authors of a new study point out, young adults seem especially prone to develop these disorders. Dixon, Stevens and Viana (2014) hoped to clarify the nature of the relationship between anxiety and substance abuse. They accomplished this by investigating whether anxiety sensitivity (AS) had an impact on the relationship between trait anxiety and substance use disorders. (Anxiety sensitivity is a term used to describe an individual’s level of fear about experiencing such anxiety-induced symptoms as increased heart rate, sweating, muscle tension and headaches. People with a great deal of anxiety sensitivity typically believe that such symptoms will lead to a terrible physical, social or mental outcome. On the other hand, trait anxiety refers to the characteristic amount of stress that an individual experiences.)

The researchers looked at AS in a large group of young adults (mean age 18.7 years) and did find that for those who had a great deal of anxiety sensitivity, use of illicit substances increased as trait anxiety  increased. This effect seemed most pronounced for those who feared an adverse cognitive or physical impact of their anxiety symptoms. The authors of the study suggested that “interventions should target AS reduction in anxiety-prone individuals to reduce and prevent substance abuse.”

What might these interventions look like?  Dr. Sharon Galor posted a thoughtful and concise description of anxiety sensitivity in which she described the typical approach to treating this problem.  She wrote that:

“During therapy sessions, clients receive psycho- education about anxiety sensitivity and its implications as well as learn to practice relaxation techniques. Furthermore, common CBT techniques of cognitive reconstruction and exposure are applied. Cognitive reconstruction aims to identify, challenge and reconstruct irrational and catastrophic thoughts that raise anxiety i.e. the belief in the high probability and a high catastrophic level of outcome that the physical symptoms can cause. Exposure helps clients to directly face the fear inducing and stressful stimuli, as well as to learn to eliminate safety behaviors.  Repeated exposure produces habituation that gradually reduces anxiety felt from the trigger. It has been found that the combination of these CBT techniques helps to treat anxiety sensitivity successfully.”

The study by Dixon, et al. was published in the August 18, 2014 edition of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. An abstract is available here:

Read more about addiction and the family in Dr. Wood’s books: Children of Alcoholism: The Struggle for Self and Intimacy in Adult Life and Raising Healthy Children in an Alcoholic Home

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