Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder that normally starts in early or middle adulthood. It varies in severity and can becomes more intense as people get older, often getting worse when individuals are experiencing stress in other areas of life. It centres around obsessive fear and subsequent worrying about illness and for some, dying, or in the case of older people, losing their memory.
People who experience health anxiety can feel anxious about their own health as well as the health of close others like their children. Individuals will focus on physical sensations, and check for irregularities, feeling severe anxiety when they notice minor things like muscle twitching or fatigue. They will often take this as evidence that they have a serious illness. For this reason health anxiety is extremely exhausting, frustrating, distressing, and disruptive for sufferers, and often their loved ones. It is the anxiety, rather than the physical sensation that is the issue.
The belief that you are ill can be so strong that you start to behave as if you are, so you might avoid physical exertion for example.
People with health anxiety will repeatedly check their body for signs of illness or disease. They may be looking for lumps, pain, tingling, and heart rate fluctuations and pay extra attention to anything they had not noticed before.
You might feel no reassurance from medical test results that show you aren’t ill. Also maximising anything you are worried about and ignoring things that might cast doubt on your beliefs about being ill. You also worry that doctors may have missed something.
Sufferers can become easily alarmed about their health. They can worry when they notice minor body sensations and tend to misperceive these as signs of a serious illness.
People who experience health anxiety may make repeated trips to the doctor or hospital, and even pay for private consultations and second and third opinions.
Many with health anxiety will often obsessively search online for information about signs and symptoms of illnesses they’re worried about.
Some people believe they are experiencing physical sensations because of an illness. Sometimes these sensations aren’t really there, they are actually ‘phantom’ symptoms. Or the symptoms are brought on by the anxiety itself, for example, an increase in heart rate, or headaches.
This is when someone is hyper focused on developing or having a particular medical problem that runs in the family, for example, a heart condition. They will often talk about their preoccupations with others.
Sufferers can feel such a frequent need to seek reassurance about their health from friends, family, and those in the medical field, that people stop responding to their requests for reassurance.
As with most mental health conditions, it is not known exactly what causes health anxiety. There are several factors that can create a predisposition to developing it:
Family; if you grew up around parents or other close family members that worried a lot about your health, or their own.
Childhood experiences and subsequent perceptions; you may have experienced serious illness as a child, or had frightening experiences relating to your health (for example, treatment at a hospital). Subsequently, any physical sensation in the body is perceived as frightening because of what you interpret it to mean.
Childhood abuse or trauma can also be a risk factor for developing a mental health condition, such as health anxiety.
Being a ‘worrier’ or having obsessive tendencies that have become focused on health are also a risk factors.
You may have had a number of ‘health scares’ which were not serious but have caused a vigilance about ill health.
Using the internet excessively to research health conditions and concerns can increase the risk of developing the disorder.
A major life stressor can also make someone vulnerable to developing health anxiety.
We are experienced in working with individuals who suffer with health anxiety and will start by taking a thorough psychological assessment of your life, your history, current concerns and how the problem is negatively impacting your life, as well as clearly outlining your goals for therapy. If you agree, we may use diagnostic questionnaires that relate to health anxiety to understand the severity of the problem.
Your goal will likely be to help you better cope and reduce anxiety and its impact on your life. We can work with you in various ways to do this. You may also wish to better understand how health anxiety developed.
Some recommended therapies for health anxiety include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which may involve some exposure therapy, and behavioural stress management. Or integrative therapy, where we combine different approaches as necessary. After your initial assessment, we will discuss therapeutic recommendations with you and seek your input throughout. It is important that the approach(s) we use work for you and this is why your input is valued.
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