Anxiety sensitivity is a fear of symptoms associated with anxiety (eg, rapid respiration and heart rate, perspiration), also known as “fear of fear.” This fear is a misinterpretation of nonthreatening symptoms as threatening across 3 domains: physical (“When my heart rate increases, I’m afraid I may have a heart attack”), social (“If people see me perspire, I fear they will negatively evaluate me”), and cognitive (“When I feel these symptoms, I fear it means I’m going crazy or will lose control and do something dangerous like disconnect my IV”). These thoughts stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in stronger sensations and further catastrophic misinterpretations, which may spiral into a panic attack. Strategies to address anxiety sensitivity include pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions. In intensive care unit settings, anxiety sensitivity may be related to common monitoring and interventional procedures (eg, oxygen therapy, repositioning, use of urine collection systems). Anxiety sensitivity can be a barrier to weaning from mechanical ventilation when patients are uncomfortable following instructions to perform awakening or breathing trials. Fortunately, anxiety sensitivity is a malleable trait with evidence-based intervention options. However, few health care providers are aware of this psychological construct and available treatment. This article describes the nature of anxiety sensitivity, its potential impact on intensive care, how to assess and interpret scores from validated instruments such as the Anxiety Sensitivity Index, and treatment approaches across the critical care trajectory, including long-term recovery. Implications for critical care practice and future directions are also addressed.

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