What is health anxiety?

We all worry about or health at times. Health anxiety refers to an excessive concern about a threat to your health that triggers your anxiety and fight/flight response. It becomes a problem when the worry is excessive, unrealistic and out of proportion given the actual risk of having something serious, it continues despite reassurance from doctors and negative medical tests, and it leads to unhelpful behaviours (e.g. body checking or googling symptoms). Some individuals dealing with health anxiety may be healthy, others may have real yet unexplained medical symptoms, and others may in fact have an existing and diagnosed medical condition that they are worrying about. In health anxiety the issue isn’t whether the physical symptoms are real, but rather whether you’re dealing with them in an adaptive way. Understandably, health anxiety can cause great distress and significantly affect your everyday life.

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Common symptoms of health anxiety can include:

  • Fear of vulnerability or susceptibility to illness and disease.
  • Experiencing symptoms of illness in the absence of actual illness and frequent visits to the GP or other health professionals to check if these symptoms represent an undiagnosed condition.
  • Fear of recurring illness or disease.
  • Fear of negative outcomes that might arise if you were to become ill.
  • Being hypervigilant to and catastrophically misinterpreting body sensations like your heart rate, blood pressure, clarity of vision, muscle tone, balance, depth of breathing and even saliva levels.
  • Engaging in unhelpful and excessive behaviours like researching explanations for symptoms and self-diagnosis (e.g. using Dr Google!), checking your body for signs of illness, or consulting multiple health professionals and undergoing diagnostic procedures to ascertain the cause of symptoms.
  • Avoidance of anything medical as it triggers too much anxiety, including visiting doctors, having necessary medical tests or procedures, or watching medical shows on TV.

Treating Health Anxiety

Once a physical cause for symptoms has been eliminated by your doctor, a psychologist can provide assistance with managing your distress and anxiety about your health. The most effective treatment for health anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This approach is likely to incorporate the following:

  • Helping you understand how your health anxiety has developed, how it is triggered, and how it’s being maintained by a vicious cycle.
  • Reducing your focus on health symptoms and worries (e.g. using attentional training or mindfulness techniques).
  • Supporting you to overcome unhelpful health related thinking.
  • Gently challenging your to gradually reduce your avoidance behaviour, and to learn the difference between helpful and unhelpful checking and reassurance seeking regarding your health concerns.
  • Maintaining your gains and preventing a relapse in health anxiety.

If you would like more information or to book an appointment with one of our clinical psychologists, contact us.