Anxiety sensitivity moderates the subjective experience but not the physiological response to psychosocial stress

Travis A. Wearne*, Abbie Lucien, Emily M. Trimmer, Jodie A. Logan, Jacqueline A. Rushby, Emily Wilson, Michaela Filipčíková, Skye McDonald

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


The ability to regulate emotional reactions is a complex process that incorporates both physiological and psychological components. Anxiety sensitivity is a construct associated with the negative and often misinterpretation of bodily sensations, with previous findings suggesting that anxiety sensitivity may regulate an individual's physiological response to an acute stress response. The aim of the current study, therefore, was to identify whether anxiety sensitivity moderates the physiological and subjective experience of acute psychosocial stress. Fifty-eight undergraduate students high and low on anxiety sensitivity (as indexed by the Anxiety Sensitivity Index – Third Edition)had their physiology recorded during a widely-used psychosocial stress induction procedure; the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Heart rate and skin conductance, together with self-reported anger and tension on the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, significantly increased in response to the TSST. Conversely, high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV)decreased in response to the TSST. We found that anxiety sensitivity moderated the subjective experience of the TSST, such that those who had greater anxiety sensitivity self-reported elevated tension in response to the TSST compared to those with low anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity did not moderate any of the physiological outcomes of the TSST. Consequently, this study provides a physiological profile on how the autonomic nervous system responds to stress. Additionally, these findings suggest that beliefs about body sensations specifically affects the interpretation of stressful experiences rather than augmenting physiological reactions themselves. This may provide insights into how biases subserve the development and maintenance of dysregulated emotional experience.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-83
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • anxiety sensitivity
  • autonomic nervous system
  • emotion
  • heart rate variability
  • physiology
  • psychosocial stress
  • trier social stress test


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