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What is health anxiety?

We can all feel anxious about our health from time to time, especially when the media reports on a new public health threat, or an emerging risk factor in developing an illness.

Health anxiety is different. It’s defined as an unfounded, sometimes all-consuming worry about having, or developing, a serious medical condition. This type of anxiety is characterised by a person’s belief that they either currently have the symptoms of a particular illness or will inevitably develop symptoms and become unwell.

In some cases, a person may also misinterpret minor or normal body sensations as more serious disease symptoms despite repeated reassurances by medical professionals that they are fit and well.

How does health anxiety manifest itself?

People experiencing health anxiety may find themselves so preoccupied by their concerns that they find it difficult to enjoy day-to-day life. They might lose sleep over their worries, and find that their social, family, and working lives are significantly impaired.

They might also obsessively perform health surveillance behaviours such as:

  • Regularly screening their body for symptoms of disease
  • Monitoring health indicators such as blood pressure, pulse rate or heartbeat to the extent where they find it hard to focus on anything else
  • Obsessively checking disease symptoms online
  • Focusing on small changes in the body, such as a slight rash, and taking that as proof that they are sick.

People living with health anxiety may also:

  • Avoid doctor’s appointments for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness or see the doctor on a very regular basis despite not having any health problems
  • Avoid anything that reminds them of illness such as television programmes about hospitals
  • Behave as if they are unwell such as relying on a cane to walk when it’s not necessary
  • Regularly ask people, including non-medics for assurance that they are not ill.

Typically, this preoccupation with having one or more illnesses will develop over a period of time and at its most severe can cause depression, panic attacks, and stress-related health problems.

Why do some people develop health anxiety?

The clinically diagnosable condition of health anxiety is more common in older people than those who are under the age of 40, although this is not to say that children and younger people can’t become overwhelmed by concerns about their health as well. Some people with health anxiety have, at some point in the past, been unwell with a serious illness and have not yet been able to believe that they are recovered. In other words, they are waiting for a relapse despite all indicators that they are now fully fit.

Others who suffer with health anxiety may have had a lengthy family history of a particular illness and are therefore convinced that they will invariably also become unwell. While some people may be experiencing anxiety relating to other aspects of their lives, and their health is just one more thing they are fearful about.

Regardless of its cause, health anxiety can be debilitating and should be treated by a specialist.

How is health anxiety treated?

The most common approach is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), although some people may also be given medication to help with their anxiety. Treatment is provided by a specialist in this particular area of anxiety disorders, and the length of treatment will vary depending on severity of symptoms and other factors.

Some people may require a more intensive form of support including psychotherapy or another type of talking therapy. Like any condition its key that any treatment approach is determined by a specialist. The first step is making an appointment to visit your GP to discuss your worries and they will be able to advise you on the most appropriate treatment options.

What can you do to manage concerns about your health?

During periods of increased risk (such as the current COVID-19 outbreak), it’s to be expected that many of us are worried about our own health and that of our family, but this doesn’t mean that we have health anxiety.

These are uncertain times, and things are changing day-to-day. It’s important that you maintain a balanced view and get the facts from reliable sources and avoid uninformed or biased opinions that are often circulated online. Ensure you only obtain the facts from trustworthy news and public health sources.