Updated: Nov 4, 2019
What is Health Anxiety and do I have it?
We all worry about our health from time to time, but for some people these worries persist even when there is no evidence for concern, and begin to interfere with day to day life. People with health anxiety are often overly attuned to their bodily sensations, and are quick to equate minor symptoms such as headaches, tight chest muscles or a twitchy eyelid with catastrophic outcomes such as cancer, heart attack or a neurological disease.
Health anxiety is on the rise, with out of context and often inaccurate medical information becoming increasingly easy to access thanks to the internet. A person with health anxiety can spend hours a day consulting "Dr Google" about their symptoms in an attempt to alleviate their distress, only to find that their excessive googling actually increases their anxiety. This behaviour is now so common that it even has its own catchy name: cyberchondria. I'll talk about that specifically in future blog posts.
It is estimated that up to 24% of the population suffer with health anxiety, and that 1 in 5 doctors’ appointments are a result of health anxiety - which is perhaps surprisingly common. It is important to remember that health anxiety is a recognised mental health condition that can cause significant distress and have debilitating effects on a persons life, even though many people don’t feel comfortable talking about their experiences of it with others for fear of being labelled as an attention seeker or ‘hypochondriac'.
If you think you might be someone who is experiencing health anxiety, consider whether any of the following statements describe your experience
- Find yourself constantly worrying about your health
- Frequently check your body for symptoms of illness (e.g. checking your heart rate, searching for lumps and bumps)
- Obsessively research symptoms or diseases on the internet, often recurrently
- Frequently seek reassurance about your symptoms from friends, family or doctors
- Find that your anxiety does not go away with medical reassurance
- Undergo unnecessary medical tests and investigations
- Withdraw from normal activities such as physical exercise, believing that you are ill
- Avoid medical TV programmes or newspaper articles or, paradoxically, you find you are drawn to information about illness
- Find yourself noticing that you have symptoms of illnesses that you have recently read or heard about
- Find yourself consumed with intrusive thoughts about your health or the health of a loved one
When you have considered the things in this list, if you think you are experiencing health anxiety, remember there is a way forward, and get in touch with an appropriate counsellor.
Health anxiety can be very confusing as it does produce physical symptoms! Anxious thoughts can cause the body to release excess adrenaline, which in turn can cause symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and twitching, dizziness and nausea. Noticing these symptoms in the body can cause more anxiety and therefore more adrenaline and more physical symptoms. This means people experiencing health anxiety can find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle that can be hard to break out of.
Counselling & Anxiety
Behavioural therapies such as CBT are often recommended for anxiety disorders. Although these types of therapy can work wonders for some people, others find that behavioural therapies alone are not enough for long term anxiety relief, or that they simply don't work for them. Anxiety disorders are often more than simply the result of faulty thinking patterns. They can be caused by misplaced worry, for example health anxiety and cyberchondria can function as a distraction from something else in our lives that we find difficult or overwhelming. Examining anxiety from an existential perspective can be particularly useful for some people (a topic for future blog posts!)
I work to help people reach a better understanding of the underlying cause of their anxiety so that long lasting, positive psychological changes can be made. Common triggers of health anxiety can include having suffered from a serious illness in the past, bereavement, becoming a parent for the first time or childhood trauma. Understanding how past life events, experiences and beliefs can trigger anxiety in the present can be the key to moving forward.