Constantly worried about your health? Learn about health anxiety
Health is a complex and multidimensional term that covers our physical state, psychological well-being and social functioning.
The definition of "health" or "healthy" varies between cultures, which makes it even more multifaceted. It would be an oversimplification to state that being healthy means having no illnesses, injuries and disabilities.
We all strive to be healthy and when reality does not match our definition of being healthy then we can become concerned.
In essence, health concerns are adaptive as they motivate us to take good care of our body, keep track of our bodily changes and to prevent or cope with illness early on.
What is health anxiety?
We all sometimes feel a pain or a strange or unfamiliar sensation here and there. Sometimes we brush it off or attribute it to recent activities or situations. Other times it worries us and causes us to pause and think what it might be. Usually we attribute it to a simple illness such as a cold or allergy.
Health anxiety is different. Health anxiety refers to the inclination to perceive bodily sensations, changes, pain and discomfort as a catastrophic sign of a serious and/or life-threatening illness.
The anxiety loop
Anxiety emerges when the threat is felt and it triggers worries and an exaggerated, nonstop preoccupation with the physical experiences.
Focussing attention on the body and noticing every small twinge can amplify the intensity and frequency of symptoms, which triggers even more "fight or flight" physiological changes. These can include a racing heart, chest pain, dizziness, heavy breathing, sweating, headaches, confusion, muscles tensing up and more.
Constantly scanning your body for symptoms, and misinterpreting them as indicators of a serious illness, can maintain and increase health anxiety, leading to higher stress and emotional distress.
People with health anxiety thus overestimate the likelihood that they suffer from a serious illness, and underestimate their abilities to cope with the health issue.
Seeking information and reassurance
Individuals with health anxiety continuously seek information that might explain the physiological sensations and emotions, and confirm the dreaded illness. Information is found via books, TV, internet sites, forums, pamphlets etc.
To relieve the distress there is a tendency to make many appointments with specialists, getting multiple opinions, taking many laboratory tests and getting medical procedures done.
Despite negative results and doctors’ reassurances, the anxiety and worries continue uncontrollably.
Seeking reassurance is also seen in the need to continuously talk with family members and friends about the physical condition and the worries.
Individuals with health anxiety seek support, opinions and advice that could possibly bring them comfort and some sense that things will be OK, yet the feeling of relief, if achieved, may not last long.
It seems like no amount of reassurance will suffice to stop the worries that something is dreadfully wrong.
The effects of health anxiety
Health anxiety can have a negative impact on many areas of an individual's life. The constant cognitive preoccupation reduces daily activities and the functioning levels at work or study.
There is also the tendency to avoid places, foods, activities, people and objects that might trigger off bodily reactions, symptoms or worries that are believed to escalate the illness. This avoidance may also take time away from other people.
Friends and family members may feel frustrated, disappointed, neglected, distressed and helpless by the situation, which can have negative implications on relationships. Social withdrawal, reduced pleasure and the experiencing of less positive experiences often lead to the development of depression.
Health anxiety does not only apply to the experiencing of real and unexplained symptoms, it also can exist in people who have diagnosed medical conditions.
Health anxiety is apparent in the way in which a person interprets, responds and copes with the symptoms.
Finding assistance is the best approach
If you recognise yourself in the descriptions above and you feel that your health anxiety is persistent, intense or uncontrollable, then it is wise to seek help from a psychologist.
Getting professional guidance is one of the best approaches to combat health anxiety as, unlike information found online or in books, it provides support and advice tailored to your specific situation.
Abramowitz, J. S., Olatunji,B. O., & Deacon ,B.J. (2007). Health Anxiety, Hypochondriasis, and the Anxiety Disorders. Behaviour Therapy 38, 86–94.
Asmundson, G., & Taylor, S. (2005). It’s not all in your head: How worrying about your health could be making you sick – and what you can do about it. New York: The Guilford Press.
Salkovskis, P., Warwick, H., & Deale., A. (2003). Cognitive-behavioural treatment for severe and persistent health anxiety. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3, 353-367.