How Misreading Bodily Signals Causes Anxiety

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It’s 9 AM Monday morning. You’ve just pulled into work and are ready to pitch your presentation to the senior management team. Your PowerPoint slides are damn near perfect and you’ve gone over the script dozens of times. You’ve got this.

As everyone gathers in the room, you’re suddenly flooded with a hit of adrenaline. The bad kind. In a flash you become acutely aware of what your body is doing: beads of sweat forming on your brow, a dry mouth that no amount of water can fix, and a steadily increasing heart rate thumping inside your chest.

This ability to perceive the signals of your body is known as interoceptive accuracy (IAc). There are, as the example demonstrated, different psychosomatic cues that you pick up within yourself during states of anxiety. But above all, a beating heart is the hardest one to ignore.

It’s for this reason that heartbeat perception, as brain scientists call it, is a direct proxy for measuring people’s IAc and reported anxiety and stress levels.

IAc and a beating heart

Having the ability to accurately detect your own heartbeat is critical for reappraising your anxiety on a moment to moment basis. We know that anxiety is as much in the body as it is in the mind, and that a (mis)perception of a fast heart rate can easily contribute to the catastrophization of a panicked state.

It’s why some of the most effective anxiety-related therapies, like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, tend to focus on muting a physiological response followed by a cognitive reappraisal technique.

Now in terms of IAc, the longstanding view was that it is an inherited trait, similar to eye color or height. Your IAc is immutable, unchanging. But now there’s new evidence suggesting that the situation matters just as much as the person: While some people may have inherently bad interoceptive ability, we can’t ignore the influence of the broader context. And this, if it turns out to be true, is a definite win for anyone looking to reverse a certain anxiety-based predisposition.

The study and findings

A team of researchers led by Martin F. Whittkamp out of the University of Luxembourg  set out to investigate just how much of a role the environment plays in determining our ability to self-reflect on accurate biofeedback.

The researchers relied on two methods to measure IAc via heartbeat perception. The first, called the counting task is simply a comparison between actual measures of your heartbeat with your self-reported measures. Another method, called the heartbeat discrimination task, measures how accurately you can rate whether or not your heartbeat is in sync with an external stimulus such as a blinking light on a computer screen.

The team in this newest study compared the results of both a heartbeat counting task and discrimination task in two conditions: a resting state and a stress state. Mental stress was induced by having participants match the color of a flashing light bulb with a corresponding button as fast and accurately as possible. If this wasn’t stressful enough, the experimenter also chimed in with a few verbal cues urging the participant to perform better so as to not ruin the entire experiment.

In addition to comparing stress state IAc with resting state IAc, the researchers also designed a number of computational models. These models aimed to measure how much of one’s interoceptive accuracy is owed to individual ability versus the situation.

The results found that about 40% of a person’s IAc can be explained by his/her individual traits, while around 30% can be explained by the changing situation, leaving the remaining 30% to measurement error.

What this says is that your ability to detect and therefore modulate your bodily responses during an anxious state is not fixed. These signals are amenable to change. You can learn to more accurately perceive your beating heart in a high-stress environment. You can apply reappraisal techniques in mitigating your anxiety.

The findings of this study have the potential to inform research on stress and anxiety management. For example, having a general idea of how much your IAc is dependent on biological predisposition could provide leeway to pharmaceutical interventions to help combat debilitating responses to stressful situations.

For now there’s therapeutic power in knowing you can improve your IAc and work towards minimizing your anxiety.

References

Feldman, G., Greeson, J., & Senville, J. (2010). Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving-kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behaviour Research And Therapy, 48(10), 1002-1011. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.06.006

Knoll, J., & Hodapp, V. (1992). A Comparison between Two Methods for Assessing Heartbeat Perception. Psychophysiology, 29(2), 218-222. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1992.tb01689.x

Richter, D., Manzke, T., Wilken, B., & Ponimaskin, E. (2003). Serotonin receptors: guardians of stable breathing. Trends In Molecular Medicine, 9(12), 542-548. doi: 10.1016/j.molmed.2003.10.010

Wittkamp, M., Bertsch, K., Vögele, C., & Schulz, A. (2018). A latent state-trait analysis of interoceptive accuracy. Psychophysiology, 55(6), e13055. doi: 10.1111/psyp.13055

 

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