Health anxiety, also known as hypochondria, is a condition where a person excessively worries about their health and often misinterprets normal bodily sensations as signs of a serious illness. Health anxiety has the potential to significantly impair a person's daily activities and cause heightened levels of stress.
Health anxiety can be caused by a combination of factors, including past traumatic events, serious illnesses, personality traits, and a tendency to magnify situations or symptoms.
Diagnosing health anxiety requires a thorough evaluation by a healthcare professional, including a physical examination and psychological assessment to distinguish it from actual physical illness.
A combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques can be effective in managing symptoms and improving the quality of life for those struggling with health anxiety.
Seeking professional help and talking openly with a loved one or someone you trust about your fears and emotions can make a significant difference in reducing anxiety and improving overall well-being.
In this article, we delve into the indicators of health anxiety and explore several approaches to managing it.
Health anxiety – symptoms & causes:
People experiencing health anxiety may exhibit various behaviors and thought patterns that revolve around a preoccupation with illness and health. Some common signs of health anxiety are avoiding people or places out of fear of getting sick or catching some illness, obsessively googling diseases and symptoms, exaggerating symptoms and how bad they are, and constantly worrying about one's health. Other signs include being preoccupied with normal body functions like heart rate or digestion, talking incessantly about health worries with others, or persistently asking loved ones for reassurance about health or symptoms.
The exact causes of health anxiety are not fully understood, but research suggests that there may be several contributing factors. One of the most common causes is a previous experience with a serious illness, either personally or within your family or social circle. However, there may also be other factors such as a genetic predisposition, personality traits like perfectionism or neuroticism, and environmental stressors like losing a job or lack of money. Also, relying on the internet or social media as a source of health information can exacerbate health anxiety.
Normal health worry vs. health anxiety
While worrying about physical symptoms is a common experience, health anxiety occurs when a person continues to believe that those symptoms indicate a serious illness. This can result in overwhelming distress that hinders daily activities.
If someone is concerned about their health, seeking medical advice is a rational step. However, people with health anxiety will feel highly stressed even if their medical tests come back negative and their doctors tell them they are healthy. Health anxiety is a condition that goes beyond typical concerns about one's health and can significantly impact a person's quality of life. This can cause problems at work or school, in day-to-day life, and in making and keeping meaningful relationships.
What are irrational fears?
Irrational fears are unfounded and exaggerated concerns about having a serious illness despite little or no evidence of its presence. People with health anxiety tend to catastrophize and interpret physical symptoms as signs of a severe medical condition, leading to constant worry and fear. These fears are often not based on objective medical evidence and can interfere with a person's daily life.
How is health anxiety diagnosed?
Health anxiety used to be called hypochondria, but it is not included as a separate disorder in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. People who have health anxiety are instead said to have “illness anxiety disorder” or “somatic symptom disorder.”
For example, illness anxiety disorder is when someone is worried about having or getting a serious illness even though they don't have any or only mild physical symptoms. Whereas somatic symptom disorder is when a person has one or more distressing physical symptoms that may or may not be related to an underlying medical condition, and these symptoms significantly affect their daily life.
A doctor will first do a physical exam to rule out any real health problems before making a diagnosis of health anxiety.
If a person is healthy, their doctor may refer them to a mental healthcare professional, who will likely proceed by:
- Performing a psychological evaluation, which involves asking questions about the person's symptoms, stressful situations, family history, worries, and issues affecting their lives.
- Asking the person to complete a psychological self-assessment or questionnaire.
- Inquiring about their use of drugs, alcohol, or other substances.
Treatment options for health anxiety
If a medical professional suspects that a person is suffering from some level of health anxiety, they will refer them to a specialist who can better assess the situation to decide on the best course of treatment. Treatment option(s) may include the following:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It is a standard treatment for health anxiety. It involves identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and beliefs about health, developing coping strategies, and gradually confronting anxiety-provoking situations.
- Medications. That includes antidepressants or antianxiety medications, which may also be prescribed to manage symptoms.
- Mindfulness-based therapy and relaxation techniques. They can be helpful in reducing anxiety and promoting overall well-being.
- Exposure therapy. It involves gradually confronting feared situations, such as going to the doctor, in a controlled and supportive environment.
- Support groups and peer counseling. This option can provide a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation.
Here are some effective self-help strategies to try if you are experiencing symptoms of health anxiety:
- Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga.
- Challenge negative thoughts and irrational beliefs.
- Limit excessive checking of symptoms or seeking reassurance.
- Reframe health concerns in a more positive light.
- Seek support from a therapist or support group.
- Focus on healthy lifestyle habits like exercise, good nutrition, and sleep hygiene.
- Moderate or avoid substance use that may increase anxiety.
- Identify and address sources of stress or anxiety outside of health concerns.
- Develop a relationship with a specialist medical professional and seek appropriate medical care when needed.
Health anxiety can be stressful and exhausting, but managing and overcoming it with the correct support and coping skills is possible. Remember that seeking professional help and talking openly about fears and emotions can greatly reduce anxiety and promote overall wellness.
- Current Psychiatry Reports. Health Anxiety: Current Perspectives and Future Directions.
- The British Journal of Health Psychology. The Health Anxiety Questionnaire.
- Cambridge University Press. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for Health Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.