Health Anxiety

The Impact of Health Anxiety

We all worry about our health from time to time. This is understandable – for example, if you need surgery, or if you are recalled by your doctor following medical tests. Equally, being worried about a loved one with a real health concern is normal. Indeed, there can be benefits to being mindful of our health, which often prompts us to make positive lifestyle changes, such as drinking less alcohol and taking up exercise. But when health dominates our thoughts and we catastrophise every niggle, this can be health anxiety, which should be addressed.

Health anxiety is common. A recent study found that the NHS could save more than £420 million a year if it were to offer treatment for health anxiety and cyberchondria (a psychological ailment caused by people obsessively looking up their symptoms on the internet). The researchers estimated that at least one in five people attending hospital outpatient appointments suffered from health anxiety.

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety was previously referred to as hypochondria and is an obsessive, exaggerated and irrational worry about having a serious medical condition. This anxiety disorder is entirely about the psychological reaction to ill health, whether it exists or not.

Often a person with health anxiety will exaggerate niggles, aches, pains, pins and needles, or unusual bodily sensations, and will fixate on the symptoms, imagining the worst-case scenario. Many will also spend a significant amount of time researching ailments and diseases, looking for the most severe and sinister possibility to explain a minor or even normal body sensation. They will often self diagnose and go on to imagine, create or convince themselves of the symptoms they have read about. Reassurance from doctors or others is usually futile.  

Causes of Health Anxiety

Health anxiety is learned or self created, and manifests most often as a result of :

  • A parent or family member with health anxiety teaching you to always look for the worst-case scenario and obsess about health.
  • An overprotective parent who may have rewarded you with affection and attention when you were ill.
  • A parent or family member who may have worried a lot about your health when you were young.
  • An illness or death in the family.
  • A personal experience of a serious health concern or illness. 

Symptoms of Health Anxiety

There are various symptoms, behaviours and thoughts a person with health anxiety may display, including the following:

  • Constantly worrying about health
  • Constantly concentrating on feelings in the body
  • Frequently searching for ailments and symptoms
  • Feelings of anxiety with every pain, niggle or unusual feeling
  • Not accepting when a doctor tells you that you are well
  • Dwelling on whether your doctor may have missed something
  • Worrying that your test results may have been mixed up
  • Frequently feeling unwell
  • A belief that something is terribly wrong with you all the time
  • Frequently requiring visits to the doctor
  • Struggling to watch hospital or health-related TV programmes
  • Searching for symptoms in yourself when reading or hearing about an illness
  • Feelings of panic if you hear someone has cancer or a terminal illness
  • Always jumping to the worst-case scenario, e.g. this could be cancer
  • Carrying many medications with you ‘just in case’
  • Needing to know the closest hospital and doctor surgery at all times
  • Talking about ailments often, with the intention of gaining reassurance from others

Overcoming Health Anxiety

Before you can cure yourself of this particular issue, it is important to acknowledge that your anxiety is learned. When your anxious feelings begin to manifest, remind yourself that you feel as you do because of the person or event that created your anxiety. Also be mindful of spending too much time with friends whose primary topic of conversation is health. 

Challenge the Origin

Consider where your negative health schema came from. Ask yourself;  How may I have learned my fear? Am I repeating a behaviour I have witnessed? Did someone I know have health anxiety or always jump to the worst possible conclusion? Was I ever seriously ill? Was someone close to me seriously ill? Did someone close to me die?

You might like to use our timeline to help you find the origin of your health anxiety. Once you identify the event or person that helped create your health anxiety, challenge it with alternative positive evidence. Ask yourself why you are choosing to repeat that person’s behaviour. Are they always right? Do they have medical qualifications? If not, why should you follow the lead on this? What are their motives for being so health-conscious and do they apply to you? Do you want to continue the cycle of health anxiety when it’s so detrimental? 

This is an important moment that takes us back to the core message here at Trauma Research UK:  You have a choice. As you will see from the following suggestions, even faced with upsetting and life-changing situations, you can choose to focus on the positive.

- I was seriously ill:

Remember: You got better. You, more than most, have the evidence and personal proof that even if you are seriously ill you can still recover.

- Someone close to me was seriously ill:

Why would someone else’s health issue be a risk to you? Are you the same age? Have you had the same diet for your entire life? Have you had the same lifestyle and experiences as them? 

- Someone close to me died or nearly died

If they did not die, they got better – proving that serious health issues can be overcome. If they did die, consider how you differ from them. Are you genetically identical? Do you live in an identical environment, doing, eating and surrounding yourself with exactly the same things as them? The answer, of course, is no we are all individuals. Focus on the differences and they will help relieve your anxiety.

Change your Perspective

If you suffer from health anxiety, you see only death, near-death or terminal illness as the outcome of illness. However, this is far from the case; it is important to seek out positive counter-evidence. For example, instead of googling your ailments, try googling someone who survived the particular illness you’re concerned about. A helpful analogy is to view your body as a car; the vehicle that enables you to travel through your life. If your car were to break down or develop a fault, you wouldn’t assume it was ready to be scrapped. Apply this reasoning to your body. If your car was to start making an odd tapping noise, this would be a warning that something needed to be fixed. On occasion, your body may provide you with a message that you should take it a little easier, eat better, rest more, or go and see a doctor. Your health is your bodies way of communicating with you. Be grateful that you have such an amazing protective system. Surely it would be far worse if we never received any warning that something in our body was wrong. 

Living with Health Anxiety can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…