An exploration of vulnerability to panic disorder: the role of anxiety sensitivity and emotion regulation

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University of New Brunswick


Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is the fear of anxiety-related sensations (Reiss & McNally, 1985; Reiss, 1991) and is a vulnerability factor for anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder (e.g., Taylor, 1999; McNally, 2002). Emotion regulation has also been linked to anxiety symptomatology, with adaptive regulation strategies associated with the down-regulation of anxiety, and maladaptive strategies linked to the up-regulation and maintenance of anxiety (John & Gross, 2007). While initial research suggests that high AS and emotion regulation difficulties interact to produce a greater expression of anxiety (e.g., Vujanovic, Zvolensky, & Bernstein, 2008), the nature of the AS-emotion regulation relationship requires further investigation. The goal of this dissertation was to determine if AS is associated with heightened fearful responding and an inability to effectively regulate fear using an experimental design. Participants (N=161) engaged in a 15-minute physiological arousal induction task (i.e., cycling on a stationary bike), and were assigned to either an experimental or control group. Participants in the experimental group were informed that they had an unexpectedly high heart rate, whereas those in the control group were told that the heart rate monitor malfunctioned. In both groups participants were asked to stop cycling after receiving the false feedback. Participants who were assigned to the experimental group were then asked to engage in either an adaptive (i.e., cognitive reappraisal) or maladaptive (i.e., catastrophizing) emotion regulation strategy pertaining to their elevated heart rate. Self-reported fear, anxiety, and threatening cognitions were measured at baseline, after false feedback, and following the emotion regulation task. General Linear Modelling with categorical and continuous independent variables was employed to test study hypotheses. Results revealed that heightened AS was associated with increased fearful responding to false physiological feedback, providing further support for the association between AS and emotional intensity. However, AS was not associated with the regulation of fearful responding. Clinical implications, limitations, and suggestions for future research are discussed.