Interoception in Pathological Health Anxiety

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Abstract

According to cognitive–behavioral models, pathological health anxiety is triggered and maintained by the perception of mostly mild and benign bodily sensations that are misinterpreted as signs of illness. Arguably, abnormalities in interoception may account for this misguided preoccupation with somatic sensations. Using a multimethod approach, the current study investigated possible abnormalities in interoception in patients with pathological health anxiety (PHA; n = 51) and healthy participants (n = 56). Different types of interoception were assessed with a heartbeat-tracking task and a signal-detection task for nonspecific skin conductance fluctuations (NSCFs task). Patients compared with healthy participants showed a more liberal interoceptive response bias for NSCFs, t(79) = 2.32, p = .02, d = 0.53, 95% confidence interval (CI) (0.30, 0.68). Specifically, patients with a comorbid anxiety disorder compared with healthy participants exhibited a significantly higher interoceptive sensitivity for NSCFs, t(57) = 3.12, p < .01, d = 0.89, 95% CI (0.54, 1.12). No evidence for higher interoceptive sensitivity in PHA (neither in the heartbeat mental tracking task nor in the NSCF task) was observed after accounting for comorbid anxiety disorders. The findings suggest that higher interoceptive sensitivity might not be specific to health anxiety, but rather associated with factors shared with the anxiety disorders. Biased (i.e., more liberal) interoceptive processing appears more specific to health anxiety, but further studies using larger sample sizes and a multimethod approach for the assessment of interoception are needed to more completely unravel the role of interoception in health anxiety.

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