Health anxiety: symptoms, causes and treatment

Key signs of health anxiety, plus what you can do to lessen symptoms via treatments or coping strategies.

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This page was medically reviewed by Dr David McLaughlan, a Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, in July 2021.

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety is a specific type of anxiety disorder, where people 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’. Illness anxiety has connections with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is characterised by experiencing obsessions and compulsions in your thoughts and behaviours.

In the case of health anxiety, those thoughts might be an assumption that small bodily behaviours are a sign of serious illness, or a sense of disbelief when a doctor’s diagnosis isn’t a serious as you thought it was.

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're 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.

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

Common thoughts if you have health anxiety

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 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's 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 cope with health anxiety

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 anxiety coping strategies you can use to manage your negative thoughts and help you 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 that might be triggering for you, starting with the easiest before working your way up to doing the activities that feel the 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

While you do this, practise taking long, slow, deep breaths. Breathe in for 4 seconds, then out again for 4 seconds. Imagine you have a balloon in your stomach that's slowly inflating and deflating. This can be an effective way to reduce physical symptoms like an increase in heart rate or chest pains.

Diagnosis and treatment for health anxiety

Anxiety is incredibly common, with approximately 20% of the population experiencing an anxiety disorder of clinical significance. If the following apply to you, it might be time to reach out for extra support:

  • Self-help techniques don't seem to be having a positive effect
  • Your worries about your health are so severe that it’s stopping you from living a normal life

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, but you could also get in touch with Priory. Our world class mental health professionals are able to diagnose sufferers of anxiety and treat your condition.

Either way, you’ll undergo a physical and psychological evaluation, outlining your symptoms, life situation, family history and any other health issues that might be contributing to your anxiety.

Today, effective treatment for conditions like anxiety is widely available. If you’re diagnosed with illness anxiety, your medical assessor will be able to outline the most appropriate treatment for you. Common treatment includes:

Therapy

Psychotherapy is most commonly used for people who are struggling with anxiety. 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 take place in one of many common therapy formats.

Medication

Medication can also be an effective way to treat health anxiety, if it's appropriate for you and therapy alone isn’t improving your levels of anxiety.

Antidepressants are frequently used to help sufferers of anxiety to regulate their mood - the most commonly used are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). If you have a mood or anxiety disorder in addition to your anxiety, medications used to treat those conditions may also help.

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