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Health Anxiety


Health anxiety is a condition where an individual has consistent worries about having or potentially

developing a physical illness. Formerly known as hypochondria [1], people with illness anxiety

disorder show mild or no symptoms but are still preoccupied with worries of having or developing a

serious illness. People who have family members that worry excessively about their health, or who

have had past experience with real serious illness, particularly in childhood, are more likely to

develop health anxiety [2].


Some indicators of health anxiety include:

- Constant worries about health

- Frequent body checking for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling, or pain

- Asking others for reassurance about illness (including medical professionals)

- Worries that medical tests may have missed something

- Avoiding anything related to serious illness, such as medical TV

- Behaving according to an illness, for example avoiding physical activities [3].


Our bodies naturally send signals when we are ill, such as pains or aches in the affected area, which

can help us to identify when we are unwell. But for individuals with health anxiety, minor or normal

body sensations may be misinterpreted as symptoms, leading them to believe they are experiencing

signals from their body that indicate a more serious problem. This can be obsessions over bodily

functions such as breathing or heartbeat, physical oddities such as skin blemishes, or physical

discomfort such as head or stomach aches [4]. Some individuals with health anxiety may fixate on a

specific organ or body part, such as the chest or the brain, or a specific disease of concern, such as

cancer or heart disease. Sometimes the feelings of anxiety can cause symptoms like headaches or

increased heart rate which can be mistaken for signs of illness. Fixations on illness can lead to

behaviours such as excessive handwashing or checking body temperature, seeking reassurance by

googling symptoms or going to the doctor. However, worries often persist even after reassurance

from doctors, and when no signs of illness are found on medical test results. Although this may bring

temporary relief, the concerns of health anxiety eventually return and continue to burden the

individual.


Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns about contracting the virus have been high all

over the world. Concerns about health and illness were shared across the country, with everyone

learning to adjust, from social distancing and staying inside, to carrying hand sanitiser and spare

masks everywhere, to constantly checking the news for updates. The pandemic took a toll on mental health in general, with an increase in anxiety levels concerning the virus, particularly for individuals who are high risk or vulnerable [5], as well as those who suffered personal experiences or loss to Covid. Even people who have never been health anxious learned to monitor and check for

symptoms, repeatedly test for Covid, and stay vigilant for any signs of infection. Although following

recommended government guidance is not irrational or unhelpful, and these requirements helped

us to stay safe and reduce the risk, many people learned how it might feel to have constant anxiety

about their health.


Sometimes individuals with health anxiety can be reluctant to turn to mental health treatments, as

they are insistent that they have a physical condition. However, if someone with health anxiety has

been medically cleared of having a physical illness, therapy is typically recommended [6]. A common treatment for health anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. CBT teaches individuals about the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, helping them to recognise and reframe unhelpful thoughts and worries in order to improve feelings and behaviour. This is effective as a treatment for health anxiety, as it helps people to think about their own health concerns and beliefs, and to recognise when they are unnecessary or unhelpful. CBT teaches people the skills to manage illness anxiety and overcome their concerns by learning new ways to respond to them. For example, by teaching new ways to understand and think about body sensations and how to avoid repeatedly examining and checking the body for potential symptoms. CBT can help individuals with health anxiety to learn how to cope with the anxiety and stress caused by their health concerns, allowing them to function without interference from anxiety and enjoy day to day life.


If you think you or someone you know has health anxiety, there are some recommendations for self-

help techniques such as keeping a diary to keep note of how often you check your body for or google symptoms, writing down your thoughts and trying to challenge them, and trying to gradually start doing things you may have been avoiding because of your health worries. If your health anxiety is becoming too difficult to manage, we offer talking therapies such as CBT that can help to reduce

anxiety. Here at Surrey Therapy Practice, we have a team of experienced professionals who offer

treatments that can help with health anxiety, using an integrative approach and tailored treatment

plan specific to your individual needs. If you would like to make an enquiry, get in touch here.


References:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t32/

2. https://www.healthline.com/health/health-anxiety#diagnosis

3. https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/health-anxiety/

4. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/health-anxiety-

what-it-and-how-beat-it

5. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-

prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide

6. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/illness-anxiety-disorder/diagnosis-

treatment/drc-

20373787#:~:text=Antidepressants%2C%20such%20as%20selective%20serotonin,possible%

20side%20effects%20and%20risks.

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