Health anxiety, or hypochondria, is excessive worrying about health, to the extent where it causes great distress and even impacts on daily functionality. Some with health anxiety do have a medical condition, for which their worry can be excessive. Others may have medically unexplained symptoms which they think may be a sign of a serious illness, despite medical reassurance to the contrary. Others may be chronically fixated on their health, worry about serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
Health anxiety is a surprisingly common issue, and one which is becoming increasingly prevalent in our society. There are many reasons why people may worry about their health. This problem can be triggered by a particularly stressful period in your life, or by the death of someone close to your, their illness or diagnosis with a medical condition. It may of course been triggered by your own health scare or diagnosis. Information about illness conveyed by the media may also have played a role in the development of your health anxiety. Even a family member worrying about your health either currently or when you were younger could be attributable. Whatever it is that has triggered your health anxiety, it is important to start to take control of it and take steps to deal with it in a better way.
How health anxiety affects us
Health anxiety can affect us in four main ways and each of these factors can influence the others:
It affects our bodies
The physical signs of anxiety include rapid heart-beat, breathlessness, sweating, muscular tension, headaches, butterflies in your stomach, or dizziness. When you are anxious about your health, you may interpret these as symptomatic of a medical condition, which may then lead you to feel more anxious. Thinking like this creates a vicious cycle maintaining the problem.
It affects how we think
People who feel anxious about their health may tend to worry excessively, aften afraid of their future and the unknown and how this will affect their health. Typically, someone who is anxious about their health might think: “It happened to my granddad, it will happen to me.” “What if I have a heart attack?” “I have had new symptoms since visiting the doctor, it must be more serious than I thought.”
“I might die if I don’t do something.” It affects how we feel emotionally If we are regularly worried about our health we may begin to feel anxious, sad, irritable, frustrated, fed up and tired.
It affects how we behave
Health anxiety can affect our behaviours. It might cause us to seek reassurance from others to check that everything is okay. We may also begin to check our body for symptoms and become more aware of physical sensations, convinced these represent something sinister. We may research symptoms and conditions on the internet, and begin to notice such symptoms or conditions in ourselves. We may even begin to behave as though we are ill, which might lead us to stop doing certain activities.
When is health anxiety a problem?
We all worry about our health at some point in our lives. However, concerns about our health can get ‘out of control’ when they occur excessively and repeatedly and/or when they persist despite negative test results and/or reassurance from your doctor.
Health concerns may also be problematic if they lead to unhelpful behaviours such as excessive checking, reassurance seeking, or avoidance (e.g. of tests, check-ups, and doctor’s appointments). If concerns about your health cause you significant distress and negatively affect normal day-to-day life, then health anxiety may be a problem for you.
What keeps health anxiety going?
Anxiety problems develop in the same way a habit does. Our thoughts and behaviours become natural and automatic, which can keep the anxiety going.
As we have already discussed, health anxiety can affect our physical feelings, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. All of these are linked psychologically to each other and can influence each other, thereby creating a ‘vicious cycle’ which keeps your health anxiety going and stops it from disappearing.
What can i do to get better?
There are several useful ways to help people manage anxiety problems. The first step is recognising you have a problem, being open to the idea that you could be experiencing health anxiety, and being willing to make some changes in your life.
Several types of medication are available to treat anxiety. Your GP will be able to discuss these with you. While these may help in the short term, they are not a longer term solution and are not without their side effects which your GP or pharmacist can explain more about. Psychological therapies get to the heart of the problem by addressing its root cause and will more effective longer term relief. Recommended by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence), and the most widely used and best researched type of therapy for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT aims to help identify, unravel and change the unhelpful thinkings and behaviours which maintain health anxiety.