What is Health Anxiety and How Is It Treated?
We all notice sensations or changes in our bodies from time to time, and worry we might have a serious medical problem. We may take steps to relieve our health worries by seeking medical tests and advice. When these worries become all-consuming, and persistent and cause you to change your behaviours, you may be experiencing illness anxiety disorder.
Illness anxiety disorder, also known as health anxiety, is a mental health condition characterized by excessive and uncontrollable fear and worry about having a serious illness, even when there is no medical evidence to support these concerns.
Illness anxiety can be debilitating, causing significant distress and impairing an individual’s ability to function in their daily life.
But I Have Real Symptoms!
Having health anxiety doesn’t mean you don’t have real physical symptoms. Health anxiety exists in people who are healthy, those with unexplained symptoms, and in those with already diagnosed health conditions. It’s how you deal with your constant worry that is the issue.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
One of the most effective treatments for health anxiety is cognitive behaviour therapy.
One important task of CBT is to help one identify and challenge unrealistic rules and assumptions that one might hold about oneself, others, and the world around them. An example of an unrealistic assumption someone with health anxiety might have is: “I must be symptom-free to be healthy”, or “If my doctor orders a test, then something must be wrong”.
CBT also helps identify and change certain behaviours that restrict one’s life and perpetuate anxiety. For example, individuals with health anxiety tend to avoid situations or activities that they associate with illnesses (doctor’s office, clinics, hospitals), that trigger physical symptoms (exercise, caffeine), or that remind them of their mortality (funeral homes, writing a will). These activities are slowly re-introduced in a safe way through gradual exposure to help individuals regain control of their lives.
CBT may also involve helping individuals learn to tolerate uncertainty about their health and other areas of their life.
Mindfulness-based approaches such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) have also shown efficacy in treating health anxiety. These approaches involve developing mindfulness skills such as paying attention to the present moment without judgment and developing a non-reactive attitude towards one’s thoughts and feelings.
Learning that thoughts, whether negative, positive or neutral are not in your control and that they are just the ‘workings of the brain’ can help you gain distance from them. This can help reduce anxiety and improve one’s ability to cope with symptoms and uncertainty.
Address Underlying Emotional Issues
Health anxiety is sometimes linked to underlying emotional issues such as unresolved trauma or depression. In therapy, individuals can explore these underlying issues and work to resolve them. Exploring the circumstances that may have triggered the development of health anxiety can also provide great insight and understanding of the function of one’s health worries.
In some cases, medication may be recommended to treat health anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly prescribed antidepressants that can be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms. SSRIs work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, which can improve mood and reduce anxiety.
Medication works well in conjunction with therapy as it can reduce one’s baseline anxiety level to a point where one can engage in therapy exercises so that therapy is more effective.
Tips for Managing Health Anxiety on Your Own
- Limit exposure to health-related news and information. Constantly reading or watching news stories about health concerns can fuel anxiety.
- Stop checking symptoms as this can exacerbate anxiety. For example, if you notice a lump and keep touching and pressing it, chances are you are irritating it so that it might get more inflamed and actually grow bigger.
- Stop asking for reassurance of your health. This includes seeking medical advice/tests and looking up illnesses online.
- Find support from family and friends who understand your anxiety and can help challenge your fears.
- Use deep breathing to calm your body and slow down your racing, worrying thoughts.
- Postpone your health worries for a later time in the day – eg: 6pm for 10 min max.
Overcoming the fears that underly illness anxiety can seem daunting at first. However, with the right treatment and support, individuals with illness anxiety can learn to manage their anxiety symptoms and improve their quality of life.