Opioid abuse is prevalent in today’s society, resulting in a nationwide health crisis. A recent study shows that there is now a link between opioid abuse and a term called “anxiety sensitivity”, which is a fear of anxiety-related physical sensations.
Anxiety comes with a host of physical side effects. Racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, nausea or upset stomach, and excessive sweating are all symptoms of anxiety. Those who suffer from anxiety sensitivity have a fear of experiencing the behavior or physiological reactions caused by anxiety.
When anxiety-related physical sensations occur, the sufferer views them as harmful, which creates a negative feedback loop in which they experience heightened anxiety and fear.
Linking Opioid Abuse to Anxiety Sensitivity
The study, published by The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, was done via survey and questioned 429 adults who reported chronic pain. Adults with chronic pain are frequent opioid abusers, as medication often results in dependence on opioids to manage pain relief.
The results of the study were clear in stating that anxiety sensitivity has been associated with a wide range of aspects related to opioid misuse, often determined by the severity of dependence, number of opioids used and current usage. The study targeted users by sex, age, income, health, pain severity and education. The study went on to state that anxiety sensitivity may be a target for treatment in patients who use opioids to manage pain. Those results may be able to provide useful information that can be used to gain understanding about opioid abuse, and to create treatment methods that can lower the rate of abuse.
The study did depend on self-reported data, and adults who enrolled in the survey were predominantly white. Even with these limitations, the research concluded that anxiety sensitivity was linked to opioid abuse.
Therapy and Treatment
Anxiety sensitivity is known for its high risk in developing anxiety disorders, hypochondria and depression. Panic disorder may also stem from anxiety sensitivity. However, due to the high risk of developing additional mental disorders, therapy is available to help individuals with anxiety sensitivity. Therapy may include deliberately exposing the patient to physical symptoms to desensitize them, such as breathing deeply, creating hyperventilation episodes, or erratic breathing from exercise. The provoked anxiety methods are continued until fears begin to lessen.
Furthermore, there are many tools that can be used to help an individual cope with anxiety sensitivity. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one, as are breathing techniques, recognizing triggers and negative thought patterns, and exercise. Combining these techniques, along with treatment for the patient’s substance abuse, may alleviate anxiety-related physical sensations.
Since anxiety sensitivity raises the risk for additional mental disorders, it’s clear to see why it’s a potential target for therapy. Clinicians have incorporated therapy into standard cognitive and behavioral treatments for panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a technique known as interoceptive exposure therapy, for example, the therapist deliberately induces the symptoms that patients with panic disorder fear most by having them spin in a chair, hyperventilate (breathe deeply and rapidly), or run upstairs repeatedly. Patients can rate experiences as more or less anxiety-provoking, identify the sensations they have been misinterpreting, and understand why their fears are unrealistic. They also practice anxiety-provoking exercises in homework assignments until the fear of fear loses its grip — a form of systematic desensitization.
Studies on diagnosing and treating anxiety sensitivity are ongoing. As further research is conducted, those seeking recovery from opioid abuse may also receive the treatment they need to overcome their addiction.