Negative interpretation of ambiguous bodily symptoms among illness-anxious individuals: Exploring the role of developmental and maintenance constructs

Mina Elhamiasl, Mohsen Dehghani, Mahmood Heidari, Linda M. G. Vancleef, Ali Khatibi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Web of Science)


BACKGROUND: Cognitive factors play an essential role in the development and maintenance of anxiety problems. Among individuals with illness anxiety problems, their interpretation of bodily symptoms is a crucial factor in the determination of their ability to regulate their emotions. The catastrophic interpretation of ambiguous bodily symptoms and changes, known as interpretation bias, in line with the failure to reappraise the symptoms in safer ways, is supposed to increase the levels of anxiety in illness-anxious individuals.

METHODS: This study aimed to address the statistical limitations of the direct (self-report) measure of interpretation bias, using an indirect (online interpretation bias task) measure for assessing biased interpretations of bodily symptoms. In addition, we examined the contribution of self-report anxiety sensitivity (AS), intolerance of uncertainty (IU), interpretation bias, and reappraisal to illness anxiety problems in a subclinical population and compared it with controls with low levels of illness anxiety.

FINDINGS: Illness-anxious individuals made more negative interpretations of ambiguous, potentially health-threatening information. They used less reappraisal to regulate their emotion. Among the measures, the physical subscale of AS and the reaction time to the safe resolution of ambiguous information were the best factors that could contribute to the differentiation between the illness-anxious individuals and non-anxious individuals.

CONCLUSION: Our findings provided further support for the biased processing of information related to physical symptoms among individuals with illness anxiety. AS-physical and safe resolutions for ambiguous situations could differentiate the illness-anxious and the control groups better than other factors. These findings suggest that a change of interpretation of ambiguous bodily symptoms among individuals suffering from chronic conditions can be a possible intervention to target anxiety and improve patients' lives.

Original languageEnglish
Article number985125
Number of pages12
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2023

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