In this brief blog, we will cover Health anxiety and how to treat it. You may have this disorder without knowing. If the symptoms below sound like you then you should consider getting a medical assessment and opinion from your doctor or mental health advisor.

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety in short is the feeling and preoccupation of your mind with feeling like you are going to be ill or get some sort of illness despite reassurance from medical experts.

It is essentially an obsessive-compulsive disorder which makes you constantly obsess about getting ill regardless of what anyone tells you. It simply summarises the obsession which eventually leads you to be anxious about the potential incoming illness.

This anxiety disorder is more common with women and will occur in about 5% of the people visiting their GPs.

On health anxiety, professor David Veale writes “  You may have intrusive thought or images about yourself or others being harmed. The threat might be real or imagined and maybe from the past (for example, a memory) present or future. When anxiety dominates the picture, you may be overestimating the degree of danger to yourself or others. Your mind tends to think of all the possible bad things that could occur. This is called ‘catastrophizing’. Your mind will want to know for certain or have a guarantee that you will not die or suffer from a severe illness. This leads to worrying about how to solve non-existent problems and to control as much of your bodily functions or to plan ahead to deal with all the possible problems that do not arise. The natural desire is to escape or avoid situations that are anxiety provoking.  One of problems is that your thoughts become fused with past experiences and accepted as facts in the “here and now”. As a consequence, you develop a pattern of thinking which is like holding a prejudice against information that does not fit with your fears.

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People with this anxiety disorder will usually focus on some key illnesses such as:

  • Cancer
  • HIV
  • AIDs etc

These are the most common illnesses people suffering from this anxiety disorder will focus on but in reality, they may focus on any illness which they choose. It could be an illness they have recently read or watched about.

Health anxiety is an illness, a type of anxiety disorder, phobia and also known as hypochondriasis. People who have this disorder will spend their time researching symptoms and will try to use any symptoms they read about to back up their claims that they are indeed about to get ill.  They will treat the slightest symptoms of any illness as being very serious and as an indication that they are about to get very ill.

If you are friends with people who have health anxiety or their friends then you will likely hear them talk about how they are about to get ill or hear them talking about how they noticed a symptom which in reality may be so minimal that it is irrelevant but to them it will be the fuel they need to continue their obsession with the idea that they are about to get ill.

People who suffer from health anxiety will also regularly over exaggerate the symptoms. E.g a cough might be an indication that they are about to get a virus or a very serious flu. A tightness in the chest could be an indication that they are about to have a stroke or heart attack. People who suffer from this disorder will often misdiagnose themselves but as a friend or family member, you are obliged to take them seriously as you never know when they will be truly experiencing real symptoms which may lead to some serious health condition.

As well as being an anxiety disorder this illness is also classed as an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

Health anxiety

How do people develop health anxiety?

No one is really sure how this disorder is developed but it is generally accepted that the following factors are relevant to how health anxiety is developed.

  • You may have had a serious illness in early life and the fear of this illness led to an obsession which has then caused fear which has now formed to health anxiety.
  • You don’t understand the feelings or illnesses you have(or have had) in your body and this misunderstanding has caused you to misdiagnose several illnesses and their symptoms.
  • You think you have a serious illness due to these symptoms and you begin researching these symptoms to see if you are right. You find evidence which supports you and you end up diagnosing yourself with the illness. 
  • You have a family member or friend who worried about their health in an obsessive manner.
  • If you have been abused as a child then you may end up developing this disorder as a consequence.
  • If you had a parent with a serious illness then you could develop this disorder.
  • If you constantly check on the internet about your health then you may misinform yourself and start worrying about your help.

Health anxiety will usually occur during the early and middle stages of your life and will usually worsen as you get older. For older people who may have developed this disorder, they may be focussed on diseases which most people will develop in later life such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Health anxiety

How to self diagnose health anxiety?

There are several ways to self diagnose this illness.

Self diagnosing health anxiety may be much easier than you think. It is not always a good idea to self diagnose an illness as most people may misinterpret the symptoms that they have and will end up self- diagnosing things that aren’t actually true.

If you answer yes to the questions below then you may find that you could have this anxiety disorder and you may want to get further clarification by speaking to a mental health professional.

In recent times:

  • Have you constantly thought that you were ill, spent your time research this illness or experienced symptoms?
  • Has the above made you stressed in any way?
  • Has this preoccupation with the possibility of getting ill and symptoms of this illness made your family life, social life etc much harder to manage or affected your family and social lie in any way?
  • Do you find that you are constantly trying to self -diagnose yourself or researching symptoms of this illness all the time?
  • Do you doubt everything your doctor says or maybe you are simply not convinced by the doctor’s comments and feel you need to research the illness more?
  • Do you constantly seek better reassurance from doctors, friends, family members and other medical professionals?

What’s the difference between health anxiety and generally being concerned about your health?

Being generally concerned about your health is something that we will all experience at some point or the other in our life but we will usually experience this concern when we have genuine concerns brought about by symptoms which can be validated and accepted by others. This is in stark contrast to what people who have health anxiety disorder will do.

People with health anxiety will usually obsess over a particular illness and will then look to find the symptoms of that illness within themselves. This constant belief that you have a symptom of an illness and the belief that you are about to get very ill is defined as health anxiety. Unlike a general concern for your health, with this type of anxiety disorder, you will become obsessed and worried by the disease and it symptoms. This obsession will continue up to the point where you become extremely anxious.

If you are worried that you may be suffering from an illness you should see a doctor and get a medical opinion. The issue here is that most people who have health anxiety will get the doctors advice but not believe what the doctor has said. In Fact, most people with this anxiety disorder will develop a higher level of anxiety after hearing the doctor tell them that they are fine.

This anxiety where you currently and constantly worry about your physical wellbeing can affect your quality of life, your ability to work, your ability to have a social life and function on a daily basis.

Health anxiety

Can health anxiety cause physical symptoms?

Symptoms of Health anxiety can end up causing physical symptoms as this disorder is a type of anxiety disorder which can cause you to have real physical symptoms such as dizziness, muscle tension, rapid heartbeat, chest pains, heavy breathing, stomach aches etc

How long does health anxiety last?

Health anxiety can last a very long time and worsen in later life if it isn’t addressed and treated soon enough. As it is a type of anxiety disorder so you may experience panic attacks which could last for 10 to 30 minutes.

How do I know if I have health anxiety?

You can know if you have health anxiety if you are constantly worrying about getting ill or the symptoms of a particular illness. If you think you have this anxiety disorder then you can also seek a diagnosis from a professional mental health expert.

Is health anxiety a mental illness?

Health anxiety could be classified as a mental illness as it is an anxiety disorder and a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It is a condition that makes people worry about getting ill to the point of obsession. People with this disorder will usually spend their time obsessing about developing an illness. This obsession will often l

Can you cure health anxiety?

Yes, health anxiety can be cured and Cognitive behavioural therapy is currently the most effective treatment for health anxiety. You should explain to your mental health therapist how you are feeling and they will look to get you to reshape your way of thinking and eventually treat your anxiety disorder.

What is severe health anxiety?

Severe health anxiety could be described as the most extreme form of health anxiety where you live in constant fear of getting ill, obsess about the illness and its symptoms up to the point where it has affected your physical wellbeing, your social life and other important relationships in your life. Severe anxiety may be brought about during moments of extreme stress.

What is the best treatment for health anxiety?

The best treatment for health anxiety is currently cognitive behavioural therapy. Medication will usually not be given except the health anxiety is at its most severe level and has caused you to have a serious anxiety disorder. In that case, anxiety medication such as citalopram and escitalopram may be prescribed.

Cognitive behavioural therapy will essentially give you the skills to reshape your mentality.

How do I get over health anxiety?

If you want to get over health anxiety then the first thing you may want to do is seek help from mental health professionals who may be willing to provide you with suitable guidance needed. This could be providing you with treatment options such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

After seeking mental health help could then go on to inform yourself about the anxiety disorder so you can do your best to prevent the symptoms from reappearing in the future. You can’t get over this disorder if you don’t really know what it is.

Stop obsessing about illnesses and trust your doctor.

If you are suffering from depression, anxiety, loneliness or any similar mental health issue then seeking help for it may be a good option. Mental health issues such as depression, loneliness and anxiety can affect anyone of us.

If you are under 18 then CAMHS, an NHS run programme may just be the answer for your mental health struggles.

You should look to see if you meet the CAMHS referral criteria and then fill in the CAMHS referral form.

If you are over 18 then you may also be able to get mental health help from the NHS. If the waiting times at the NHS or your local public mental health services is way too long then you may want to consider seeking mental health professionals in the private market.

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