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Health anxiety: symptoms, causes and treatments

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety is a specific type of anxiety disorder, where individuals spend a lot of time worrying about being unwell or becoming unwell. Formerly known as ‘hypochondria’, health anxiety may also be referred to as ‘illness anxiety’. As is the case with all forms of anxiety, health or illness anxiety can seriously compromise your ability to function in your day-to-day life.

Health anxiety is different to simply having a concern for your health. If you are feeling unwell or have noticed new, unusual symptoms, it’s normal to worry and correct to be cautious. However, health anxiety goes beyond what we might consider a ‘normal’ concern for your health in that it can cause debilitating worry that can have a negative impact on all areas of your life.

This guide to health anxiety will outline:

Health anxiety symptoms

Some common signs of health anxiety can include:

  • Exaggerating minor, often normal, bodily functions as symptoms of illness
  • Worrying constantly about your health
  • Frequently checking your body for signs of illness, such as rashes, lumps or unusual bodily sensations
  • Seeking reassurance from friends, family or medical professionals
  • Obsessively searching the internet for health related topics
  • Avoiding your typical activities or situations out of concern for your health

On top of these, anxiety itself can cause physical symptoms, such as shortness of breath, stomach upsets or a racing heartbeat. It’s also possible that people will mistake the physical symptoms of anxiety for another illness. 

 

Causes of health anxiety

It’s possible for the symptoms of health anxiety to just appear ‘out of the blue’ with no clear cause. It can also be linked back to a trigger event. Examples of potential triggers for health anxiety include:

  • Experiencing a serious illness when you were a child
  • A family member having a serious illness
  • You or a family member being prone to anxiety or being a ‘worrier’
  • Going through a stressful or traumatic event such as suffering a bereavement

A lack of information, or poor understanding of disease and illness, can also contribute to health anxiety. You might look on the internet for answers and assume that the most severe responses are what is happening to you. When a new bodily sensation occurs, you might immediately assume the worst and then search the internet for something that confirms that opinion. This information may not have been reliably sourced and might be at odds with the reality of your symptoms – this can therefore fuel your health anxiety.

How to deal with health anxiety: 3 coping strategies

Health anxiety can have a debilitating effect on your wellbeing and quality of life. For some, it will be so bad that they might not want to engage in normal everyday activities for fear of catching an illness or hurting themselves. If you’re experiencing symptoms of health anxiety, there are a number of strategies you can adopt to cope with your negative thoughts and continue to function normally. 

Challenge your health anxiety thoughts

Draw a table with two columns. In the first column, write a list of common worries that you have about your health. In the second column, write down how a balanced friend might interpret the situation.

For example:

First column – “I’ve got a headache - it could be a brain tumour.”

Second column – “There’s lots of causes of headaches. It could be because I haven’t drunk enough today. Maybe I should have some water.”

Return to ‘normal’ gradually

If you’re struggling, it’s ok to slow down and limit the things that might be making your anxiety worse. Write a list of activities which might be triggering for you, starting with the easiest before working your way up to doing the activities which might feel most frightening.

Over time, re-introduce these activities. Reward yourself as you do, but don’t give yourself a hard time if some days are more difficult than others.

Focus your attention on the world around you

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, try using the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method. Train yourself to focus your attention on:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can hear
  • 3 things you can feel
  • 2 things you can smell or taste
  • 1 thing which makes you feel grateful

Whilst you do this, practise taking long, slow, deep breaths. Breathe in for four seconds, then out again for four seconds. Imagine you have a balloon in your stomach which is slowly inflating and deflating. This can be an effective way to reduce physical symptoms like an increase in heart rate or chest pains.

Seeking support and treatment for health anxiety

Anxiety is incredibly common, with approximately 20% of the population experiencing an anxiety disorder of clinical significance. If you’re in need of support, know that you can reach out to friends and family, and don’t give yourself a hard time about it. If you feel you need professional help for health anxiety, your GP is a good place to start.

Mental health treatment options are available too. Psychotherapy is most commonly used for those who are struggling with anxiety. Sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be particularly effective, as this form of therapy is designed to give you the tools to manage your disorder and continue to live a normal life. These sessions could be run in-person, online or as part of a group. Medication can also be an effective way to treat health anxiety, if it is deemed appropriate for the individual.

Priory helps thousands of individuals to regain control of their lives through successful treatment of anxiety. Contact one of our mental health professionals today, either via our online enquiry form or the telephone number below. We will be able to assess your symptoms and recommend the most appropriate form of support.

Remember, health anxiety is treatable and you don’t have to struggle on your own – get help today.

This blog was reviewed by Dr David McLaughlan, a Consultant Psychiatrist  at Priory Hospital Roehampton.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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