Health Anxiety

Description:

Health Anxiety, which is also known as Hypochondriasis, Somatic Symptom Disorder, or Illness Anxiety Disorder, is commonly associated with obsessions or fears of being seriously or terminally ill or fearing catastrophic outcomes from either real but benign medical issues (e.g., food allergies, headaches) or when there are no medical symptoms present whatsoever. Often, the individual will misread minor symptoms as something serious or life-threatening and search for reassurance or avoid any situations or triggers that they believe caused the minor symptoms. Individuals with health anxiety may frequently visit or switch health care providers to provide relief, seek out information about their disease even though they already know the information. Others may feel more susceptible to disease and avoid health care providers in fear of receiving bad news.

Health Anxiety symptoms include:

  • Being preoccupied with having or getting a serious disease or health condition
  • Worrying that minor symptoms or body sensations mean you have a serious illness
  • Being easily alarmed about your health status
  • Finding little or no reassurance from negative test results or a doctor's reassurance that you're healthy
  • Worrying excessively about a specific medical condition or your risk of developing a medical condition because it runs in your family
  • Having so much distress about possible illnesses that it's hard for you to function
  • Repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness
  • Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance — or, avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks
  • Constantly talking about your health and possible illnesses
  • Frequently searching the Internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses

Health Anxiety Treatment:

Ruling out medical conditions by working closely with the individual's medical providers is an important first step when working with anyone with health anxiety. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees of accurate diagnosis or rule out even within thorough medical evaluations. Similar to other anxiety disorders that involve excessive fears and ritualistic and repetitive behaviors to calm one’s fears, health anxieties are most effectively treated with exposure therapy, reduction of reassurance seeing and avoidant behavior, and cognitive therapy to address misconceptions. Basic health education is also a key ingredient.

For more information about health anxiety, its treatment options, and its relationship to OCD, check out Dr. Josh Spitalnick and his podcast episode on "The OCD Stories."