Health anxiety

We all worry about our health from time to time; being concerned over your general health and well-being is normal. In fact, worrying about our health can sometimes even be helpful. It can lead to us living a healthier lifestyle - wanting to give up smoking or eat a healthy, balanced diet.

However, it’s when these worries start to take over your life that things become problematic.

On this page, we’ll explore health anxiety in more detail, including the signs and symptoms and how therapy can help.

What is health anxiety?

For the purposes of diagnosis, health anxiety can be split into two different disorders: somatic symptom disorder (SSD) and illness anxiety disorder (IAD) - formally known as hypochondriasis. The difference between these conditions is subtle and, sometimes, both may be present. For this reason, health anxiety is a common term used to discuss a range of symptoms.

Somatic symptom disorder

If someone experiences SSD, they may mistake normal bodily functions as a symptom of illness. This is not to say that their symptoms are not real - common examples of symptoms may include tiredness or pain - but the person’s reaction to the symptoms is extreme.

Illness anxiety disorder

If someone experiences IAD, they may be overly preoccupied with a specific disease or illness, such as cancer. They may have no physical symptoms whatsoever but, instead, confuse normal bodily processes such as sweating or bloating, as a sign of the onset of the illness they are most fearful of.

Another common term used synonymously with health anxiety is hypochondria. You may have heard of the term ‘hypochondriac’, used as an insult for people who worry about their health. The trouble is, these negative connotations can often mean that many people do not see health anxiety as a debilitating illness, instead, the person is seen to be dramatic or ‘overreacting’ about their health. However, this is not the case.

For the person experiencing health anxiety, their fear is so real that it can consume their thoughts and feelings constantly. Intrusive thoughts can be unpleasant, regardless of the nature they take. But, if they lead you to believe that you are seriously unwell or are at risk of dying, this can be particularly distressing. Health anxiety can have a severe impact on a person’s quality of life.

Health anxiety symptoms

Everyone is different - you may be generally worried about your health and look out for a wide range of symptoms, or you may be concerned about one illness in particular.

Below are some of the common signs of health anxiety:

  • You have no symptoms, but you still fear that you are sick.
  • A doctor reassuring you that you don't have an illness (or a test showing healthy results), doesn't relieve your nervousness.
  • You constantly seek health information online.
  • If you read about a disease, you worry that you have it.
  • Your worries about your health are interfering with your life, family, work, or hobbies and activities.

There’s a world of difference between everyday worries about health and health anxiety. This condition can be as paralysing and terrifying as any other form of anxiety - sufferers are often in a constant state of fear, checking themselves for symptoms hundreds of times a day and too scared to lead life as they would like to.

- Counsellor Cathryn Bullimore discusses the fear experienced by those with health anxiety.

The important thing to remember is that health anxiety is not all in a person’s mind. Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue and nausea. Of the more extreme symptoms, health anxiety can also trigger panic attacks. So, if, for example, a person is afraid of having a heart attack, the symptoms experienced can be truly terrifying.

In the following video, psychiatrist Dr Tracey Marks talks about health anxiety, the symptoms experienced and what treatments can help.

Anxiety or OCD?

Although it is an anxiety-based condition, health anxiety is often linked with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), on account of the compulsive behaviours that accompany symptoms.

Seeking reassurance from doctors or the internet may, in some cases, provide relief. But, just like with OCD, such compulsions only offer relief temporarily - before the fear of illness returns once again.

What causes health anxiety?

There can be many reasons why someone starts to worry too much about their health. Perhaps you’ve had a bad experience with your health in the past or as a child, or maybe a loved one worries about their health excessively. Just like many other mental health problems, there can be a wide variety of causes or triggers. 

But, unlike some other mental health problems, health anxiety isn’t always an internalised problem - it doesn’t always mean that people are worried about their own health. Some people become preoccupied with the health of others. This can be the case, particularly for parents, who worry about the health of their children.

Who is affected by health anxiety?

It is thought that women experience health anxiety more commonly than men and, although children can experience health anxiety, it typically begins in adulthood. 

Having a medical disease or diagnosis does not necessarily exclude health anxiety - many people have both. In fact, for people that have their health anxiety realised, by being given the diagnosis that they most feared, this can present a new set of challenges.

Columnist Deborah James talks about her experience of health anxiety and living with cancer, alongside fellow co-host of You, Me and the Big C, Lauren Mahon, on Happiful’s podcast I am. I have.

Treatment for health anxiety

Treatments for health anxiety are similar to those for OCD. The most effective form of treatment is thought to be talking therapy, specifically cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). However, some people may find that they need additional support, in the form of medication or complementary therapies, such as hypnotherapy.

CBT for health anxiety

Cognitive behavioural therapy can be really helpful in enabling us to take notice of our thoughts about a particular situation and recognise how those thoughts make us feel.

The good news is that health anxiety can be treated and cognitive behavioural psychotherapy is the most recommended form of therapy in these instances. CBT can indeed help you in acknowledging and changing the cognitive misinterpretations that maintain the problem and in finding new coping mechanisms to better deal with anxiety.

- Chartered psychologist, counsellor and psychotherapist, Ilaria Tedeschi explores treatment for health anxiety.

CBT aims to help you overcome fears by correcting irrational thoughts and changing problematic behaviours. By acquiring a certain mindset, you can learn to approach anxious situations differently and learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty.

For instance, a therapist can help you to understand why your fear of illness makes you feel anxious and notice when and why your behaviour changes, in order to break this negative cycle. This can help you to notice that it’s not the presence of a symptom of ill health that is causing your anxiety, but the meaning you apply to the symptom.

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