Could it be… Health Anxiety?

In a world where we are continuing to live alongside a pandemic, where 1 in 2 of us will develop cancer and where new research constantly tells us what we should and should not be doing, it is not surprising that many of us have become aware of our own vulnerabilities and mortality. It is our Human nature to survive and so we may experience thoughts, worries or even images relating to our health. These may often be manageable, with the individual acknowledging the worry but also letting it go without it impacting upon their day. However, for some, these intrusions may cause increased anxiety, which may begin to impact their life in various ways.

Have you noticed that you often worry about your health?

  • Are you regularly concerned that you have, or may develop, an illness that will impact or even shorten your life?
  • Have you noticed that your attention may be drawn to sensations or changes within your body? Perhaps a headache, a sore throat or an unexplained ache in your side.
  • Do your thoughts tell you that these feelings or sensations are evidence that your health concerns are valid? A headache could be a symptom of a brain tumour, for example.
  • Have you found yourself googling symptoms or perhaps booking medical appointments in an attempt to find answers or diagnose a condition?
  • Are you often frustrated by the outcomes from Dr Google or the response of medical professionals?

If the answer to some of these questions is yes, you may be struggling with Health Anxiety or Illness Anxiety Disorder.  

What is Health Anxiety?

Otherwise (perhaps unhelpfully) referred to as Hypochondriasis, Health Anxiety is characterised by increased preoccupation with our own health and concerns that we have an undiagnosed condition which will significantly impact upon our life. Individuals struggling with Health Anxiety will notice that they continue to worry about such conditions even if this has been ruled out by investigations or a medical professional.

Individuals who struggle with Health Anxiety may be drawn to physical sensations within their body and may notice an urge to monitor their body for any changes. These physical sensations may be present but, due to increased anxiety, an individual may accidentally misinterpret them as dangerous symptoms of the undiagnosed health condition. However, it is often the case that these ‘symptoms’ are normal bodily sensations or are simply the product of increased anxiety or worry.

The misinterpretation of physical sensations may provide “evidence” for, and reinforce, our health-related worries which can lead to increased distress for the individual – “See, I still have some pain when I swallow, I must have throat cancer!”.  Due to the perceived threat and new ‘evidence’ for this, individuals often adopt methods of coping, such as googling their symptoms or seeking reassurance from someone close to them or a medical professional. Ironically, these coping mechanisms often lead to further anxiety or frustration due to the lack of concrete answers and uncertainty that is produced. Some individuals also report feeling unheard or dismissed by their Doctor who could not find a medical reason for their symptoms.

health anxiety

A maintenance cycle of Health Anxiety (credit: Psychology Tools)

In summary, increased engagement with health-related thoughts, worries or images will lead to increased anxiety. Increased anxiety can lead to an increase in anxiety-related bodily sensations, which in turn leads to an increased risk of the misinterpretation of these feelings. This may then lead to an increase in coping behaviours, which may lead to further frustration and anxiety.

If you can relate to anything mentioned above, I would encourage you to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What if our worries about our health are just worries? Do you often treat my worries or thoughts as if they are facts?
  • What if the physical sensations that we notice are either normal or are simply our body’s response to our anxious state?
  • What if my coping mechanisms (googling, seeking reassurance) are keeping my anxieties going?

This is all well and good, but should I get this checked out?

Of course, if you are concerned about your health, and this has not previously been investigated, then it is important that you discuss your concerns with your GP or medical professional. Psychotherapists are not medically trained and we would not want to assume that all health related difficulties can be explained as Health Anxiety. However, if you are continuing to notice a preoccupation with your health despite medical reassurance then it may be worth considering if you are struggling with Health Anxiety.

How can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) help?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can support individuals struggling with Health Anxiety to recognise how their thoughts, physical sensations and behaviours may interact to maintain their difficulties. Individuals struggling with Health Anxiety may work to adapt their relationship with their thoughts or worries, to begin to understand the physical sensations that they experience and to begin to reduce unhelpful coping mechanisms. Through this process, an individual may learn to break the unhelpful cycles of Health Anxiety and to lessen the hold it would have on their life.