What is health anxiety?
Do you find yourself constantly worrying about your health? Do you spend a lot of time on the internet researching your symptoms, only to become more anxious and scared? If this sounds familiar, you may have health anxiety. Learn more about it and how you can help manage it.
You might be familiar with the word hypochondriac to refer to someone who is constantly worried that they have an illness or that they’re getting sick. This word comes from hypochondria or hypochondriasis, two terms that refer to the constant fear of illness or getting sick. However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) that is published by the American Psychiatric Association no longer includes hypochondriasis as a diagnosis that’s given out. Instead, people may be diagnosed with health anxiety or illness anxiety disorder.
While it’s normal to worry about your health, people with health anxiety disorder often take normal symptoms and assign them to a serious illness or disease. Sometimes there might not be any symptoms at all but you start to convince yourself that you have them. Illness anxiety disorder can make you spend a lot of time worrying about simple, everyday symptoms. The symptoms linked to anxiety, like headaches, chest pain, or dizziness, can make your health anxiety worse since you worry that they could be linked to something bigger.
Signs and symptoms
Common symptoms of health anxiety include:
- Long-term worry or fear about illness, lasting six months or more
- Complaints of symptoms that are usually related to anxiety itself, like indigestion, constipation, headache, and chest pain
- Checking your body frequently for things like lumps, moles, or signs of pain
- Inability to control fear or worries about your health
- Thinking that normal symptoms or things on your body are serious or signs of a disease
Illness anxiety disorder can start to consume your life. You may find yourself constantly searching for information on the internet or TV related to the symptoms you think you have. The opposite can also be true. You may avoid looking at anything that’s related to illness, like medical movies or TV shows.
If you go to a doctor for your symptoms, you may still continue to worry about illness even though your doctor has told you everything is fine. This can cause you to think that they missed something important or that they haven’t done the right tests. To help ease your fears, you may find yourself constantly asking for reassurance from others that you’re not sick.
Tips to manage health anxiety
If all of this sounds familiar, there are steps that you can take to manage your health anxiety.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy. The best and most effective hypochondriac cure is therapy with a mental health expert. If you seek out help for your health anxiety, your doctor will first give you a physical exam to look at your symptoms and rule out any serious illness.
The next step is to meet with a mental health professional who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy focuses on helping people change the way they think and act. It’s highly effective when it comes to treating many kinds of anxiety disorders. CBT can help you overcome your fears by changing problematic thoughts and behaviors. Your therapist will help you to think in different ways so that you’re not constantly worrying about the worst-case scenario when it comes to your health.
Self-help. There are several things that you can do at home or on your own to help manage your health anxiety. For example, you can write a diary on your behaviors. Note down things like how often you check your body or the symptoms you’re worried about. After you write these things down, reflect on your diary each week to note how many times you did them. Aim to reduce your habits and behaviors a little bit each week.
It's easy to hop on Google to check out symptoms, but try to catch yourself when you do this. There is a lot of information out there and unless you see a doctor, you’re not going to be able to diagnose yourself with anything. In fact, surfing the internet for symptoms is bound to make your anxiety worse. Note in your diary when you feel the need to Google something.
Try to relax by doing activities that you enjoy. Perhaps you avoided socializing or doing sports due to the fear of getting sick or injured. Recognize that the chances of these things happening are low and that you should get back to doing things that make you happy. When you feel the urge to jump on Google or start checking your body, do something more productive like calling a friend or going for a walk to calm down.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Anxiety & Depression Association of America: "Health Anxiety: What It is and How to Beat It."
Black Dog Institute: "Managing health anxiety."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Always worried about your health? You may be dealing with health anxiety disorder."
Mayo Clinic: "Illness anxiety disorder."
Mount Sinai: "Hypochondriasis."
NHS: "Health anxiety."
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