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Sensitization: Are You Conditioned to Overreact to Stress?

Sensitization: Are You Conditioned to Overreact to Stress?This week, I’m reaching back in time for help with panic disorder and agoraphobia.

Nah, there’s no flux capacitor in my bag of goodies — just a book. (But a good one. So far.)

Dr. Claire Weekes begins her 1972 book, Peace from Nervous Suffering, by acknowledging three pitfalls that can lead to what she calls “nervous illness.”

Ha, wait. Nervous illness. You don’t hear THAT kind of phrase tossed around too much these days.

It’s worth pausing here to mention that some of her language is, well, charming. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure when the phrase “panic disorder” was coined and when it entered the DSM as a diagnosable disorder — perhaps not by the time ’72 rolled around.

So, instead of referring to “panic disorder,” “generalized anxiety,” or any other common phrases, Weekes speaks about “nervous illness.”

Half of me thinks that her outdated terminology is comforting after all, doesn’t an “illness” sound more temporary and more curable than a “disorder”? But the other half of me itches to call a spade a spade: the word “nervous” is leagues away from true “panic”, after all.

I’ll save the discussion about semantics for another day. Back to those three pitfalls Weekes writes about: sensitization, bewilderment, and fear.

Today, let’s talk about sensitization.


Have you ever walked through one of those cheesy pre-fab haunted houses at Halloween? You know the kind I’m talking about: they pump a whole lot of fake fog into a barn or an old mansion, dim all the lights, and place high school actors dressed as mummies and witches in dark corners to scare the living daylights out of you? All for the low admission fee of $15! Proceeds to benefit the Latin Club or something.

When you’re walking through that musty haunted house, you know what’s coming (even if you don’t know the details). You know something’s going to freak you out. You know something fuzzy might touch your neck. You know that an evil clown might jump out of the closet. You know that a sudden burst of evil laughter will probably pipe out of an overhead speaker. You don’t know the precise nature of what’s about to scare you, but you’re anticipating something — anything — nonetheless.

In that haunted house, you are sensitized. Your body and your mind are prepared to react  — and to react quickly — to the frightening stimuli. A fake tarantula suddenly dangles in front of you and your overly-prepared mind & body work together to swat it away, duck, or recoil in record time.


But right now, you’re not in a haunted house. You’re probably in your own house. Or perhaps at work. Or at the library, in a coffee shop, waiting for a bus, or playing with your phone in — well, Latin class.

Sensitization goes far beyond the haunted house scenario above. It can occur (in a mild form) when “our nerves have become alerted to respond too quickly, too acutely, to situations that would, at other times, leave us unmoved”, according to Weekes.

Mild stuff. Like jumping when you hear the doorbell or becoming irritated at your toddler for repeating the same thing ad infinitum. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mom. Mom! Mom? MOMMY. Mom, look at this. Mom. Hey mom. Mom! Mommy! Mooooom. Hey Mommy. Mommy! Mommy!

You overreact to stress.


But for some, it gets more severe than that. From Peace from Nervous Suffering:

Besides feeling painfully edgy and agitated, a severely sensitized person may feel his heart constantly beating quickly, “missing” beats, or thumping; he may have recurring attacks of palpitations; he may feel his stomach churn…[h]is hands may tremble and sweat. He may have difficulty expanding his chest to take in a deep breath and may — in the words of one woman — gasp and gulp for air.”

Severe sensitization is feeling like you’re at that haunted house every day of your life. Even though you’re at home or at work, part of you is stuck in that haunted house. Your body and mind are always at attention. You’re hypervigilantly scanning your surroundings for threats.

There’s no clown in your bedroom closet closet, but the sound of a car door slamming outside of your bedroom window alerts your body to respond with panic. There’s no spooky fog and dim lights in your bathroom — instead, your nervous system (and perhaps even a full-blown panic response) is triggered by simple stimuli that wouldn’t otherwise affect you: the slamming door, for example. Or the buzz of the clothes dryer. The burp of the kitchen sink when water tries to drain around food stuck in the trap.

Even the tiniest stimuli can have huge effects on our body and mind — especially while we’re severely sensitized. According to Weekes:

…[P]anic can follow the slightest anxious thought: hence the necessity to understand sensitization and know how to cope with it.


Now that you know what sensitization is, how do you cope with it? To what types of events, people, feelings, or emotions are you particularly sensitized?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Kaptain Kobold

Sensitization: Are You Conditioned to Overreact to Stress?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2012). Sensitization: Are You Conditioned to Overreact to Stress?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Mar 2012
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