HOUSTON — We all find ourselves worrying a bit irrationally from time to time, it’s an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. Interestingly, however, a new study finds anxiety and worry focused specifically on one’s heart function and health may serve as a warning sign for mental health disorders in the future.

“We have empirical evidence that individual differences in heart-focused anxiety are related to more severe co-occurring anxiety and depressive symptomatology among a particularly at-risk segment of the Latinx population,” the authors write.

The study, conducted at the University of Houston, focuses on young Latinx adults. In all, 169 college-aged Latinx adults living in the United States who had experienced trauma (racism, transgenerational stress) were included in this work.

“In our first study, we assessed middle aged adults, presumably more concerned about their health. This study is unique, however, because even among a group generally too young to experience mounting health concerns, we are seeing a similar pattern, which tells us it’s probably relevant to the whole Latinx population,” says study co-author Michael Zvolensky, the director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic at UH, in a statement.

Prior research suggests members of the Latinx community tend to attribute mental or psychological problems to physical causes. For example, intense anxiety may be described as a headache or breathing problem.

“This population also struggles with a lot of chronic physical health co-morbidities including heart disease and obesity, so this research is a good fit for a population who tends to blame mental health issues on physical ailments, which generates greater mental health risk,” Zvolensky adds.

Unfortunately, mental health support and services for Latinx individuals are woefully inadequate in many areas.

“Latinx persons underutilize mental health services compared to non-Latinx whites and are more likely to use primary care for the delivery of mental health services which are often inadequate for successfully addressing mental health problems,” Zvolensky explains. “Results indicated that heart-focused anxiety was a statistically significant predictor for general depression and overall anxiety.”

On a clinical level, study authors say their work may help form new specialized mental health intervention strategies.

“We can screen for heart-focused anxiety and that’s much more efficient and precise than screening for a whole range of mental health problems,” Zvolensky concludes. “If you reduce heart-focused anxiety, you do that person a great service because you’re likely decreasing their risk for a whole range of mental health problems. And that’s called precision medicine.”

The study is published in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. 





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