What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is an exaggerated fear of something to do with your health. Maybe you are afraid that you have a disease that you heard about on a podcast. Or maybe you’ve noticed your body doing this weird thing and worry that it might be a sign of something serious. Or maybe you are preoccupied with your health. You might excessively seek out medical attention for your symptoms, or you might do the opposite and avoid going to the doctor out of fear. All of these scenarios are what can be termed health anxiety.
As health anxiety is not an official diagnosis, statistics were hard to find. However, if we look at the official diagnoses of Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder, this is what we find.
Somatic Symptom Disorder
People who are diagnosed with this disorder will have several different physical symptoms which may or may not be explained by a medical diagnosis. This will frequently include some sort of complaint about pain, and can also include symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle twitches, or general weakness. Also, the person with this will have excessive thoughts about, feelings surrounding, or behaviors in response to this symptom. So, you’d worry a lot about the symptoms that you noticed, you’d anxiously scroll the internet looking for answers, you’d go to the doctor’s excessively, or maybe you’d have a hard time believing your doctor when you’re told there’s nothing wrong with you. These types of thoughts would have to cause significant distress in order for you to be diagnosed with Somatic Symptom Disorder.
This is more common in females than males and affects approximately 5-7% of the population at any given time.
Illness Anxiety Disorder
In this diagnosis, the person is preoccupied with having or catching various diseases or illnesses. This is a severe and persistent fear of a life-threatening illness despite not having any or maybe a few of the symptoms associated with the illness. Because of the high amount of anxiety associated with this, it can be very disabling to the person. Someone having Illness Anxiety Disorder might be convinced that they have cancer (or MS, or chronic fatigue syndrome, or any other illness), and despite being told by their doctor that they in fact are healthy, do not believe they are.
This diagnosis affects males as much as females and is estimated to affect about 0.1% of the population. It comes in 2 different forms: people who excessively seek out treatment and people who actively avoid getting any treatment because of their fear.
Because this is essentially an anxiety disorder, a person with health anxiety may experience complications from having chronic anxiety. Over time, anxiety can cause problems with your physical health as well as with mental health. Relationships can be affected because of the anxiety and the behaviors associated with it such as obsessing over one’s health. This type of obsessive behavior may cause you to pursue unnecessary tests which might cause financial stressors in the family. Also, the tests may also come with potential complications that cause their own problems.
What is the expected outcome?
Unfortunately, these conditions are considered chronic in nature and may be something that you will need to cope with for your entire life. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no hope! Health anxiety is manageable with treatment, and you can certainly go on to lead a relatively anxiety-free life.
As this is considered a chronic illness, there is no cure for it. Instead, treatments need to focus on managing and reducing symptoms. To do this, medications are often used including antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is the preferred therapy of choice and will require you to complete homework assignments between sessions. However, as I said above, with work, this is a treatable and manageable condition.
If you think you might have health anxiety or would like to talk with me about anxiety treatment, please follow the link. It is very treatable, and I would love to hear from you.