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What is Health Anxiety?

Have you ever noticed a new pain in your body and wondered what was causing it?  Do you immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be cancer and you’re going to die? Do you excessively worry or have anxiety over your health? Have you had a discomfort or tightening in your chest and believed you were having a heart attack? Imagine this fear happening every day or maybe even several times a day.

This is what someone with health anxiety is experiencing. They experience sensations in their body and believe these are symptoms of something serious and deadly.

Illness Anxiety Disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: Fifth Ed (DSM-5) classifies Illness Anxiety Disorder (commonly referred to as health anxiety) as a somatic symptom disorder. This means there is a focus on bodily sensations to the point of being distressing and overwhelming. Included in Illness Anxiety Disorder is:

  • Having a preoccupation with being or becoming seriously ill.
  • Experiencing a great deal of anxiety around health.
  • Focusing an inordinate amount of attention on health status.
  • Excessively checking things related to their health.
  • Either bombard their physicians with checking the status of their health or avoid doctors or medical establishments altogether. 1

Am I Just Being Cautious?

Doctors and medical professionals will often tell us if we experience a new pain that lasts a while or if we see a significant change in our bodies, to get things checked out to rule out any issues. How many of us have had a family member or friend who experienced an unusual pain and avoided seeing a doctor until it became unbearable? When they finally got in to get it checked out, they discovered it was something serious, and then they got lectured for not coming in earlier. That tends to leave us wanting to get something checked sooner rather than later.

Do I Have a Problem?

So, how do we differentiate following doctor’s orders from health anxiety? It really comes down to how much time we are focusing on it, how we are changing our lives to cater to it, and if we have evidence there is something wrong. Here are some of the typical things we see with healthy anxiety:

  1. We are so preoccupied with the perceived illness that it interferes with our lives. It interrupts our work, our sleep, our free time. It’s the first thing we think of when we awake, and it’s the last thing we think of when we go to sleep. It will even wake us up in the middle of the night worrying about it.
  2. We have no evidence that we have a medical condition. We have no test results (CAT scan, blood tests, etc.) that confirm we have a particular illness or disease. We speak in terms of having an illness but have not been diagnosed yet. We might have even received a clean bill of health from our doctor, but we still believe they are wrong and that deep down, something bad is happening within our bodies.
  3. We talk in terms of “symptoms” instead of identifying a “sensation.” A symptom already places the issue within the realm of illness. A sensation is merely something our body is experiencing.
  4. We have a deep-seated belief we are dying, but we have no proof. Feelings and beliefs are taking precedence over evidence. A diagnosis from a physician or lab results confirming an illness, cancer, or disease is proof. Health anxiety has us believing we are sick when the medical professionals have not confirmed it.
  5. We catastrophize. We assume the worst with each sensation. We don’t wait to see the doctor and receive the test results. We immediately believe we are dying or have cancer.

What it Might Look Like

What are some of the things a person with health anxiety might be doing?

  • Checking their vital signs repeatedly to confirm a serious issue.
  • Calling the doctor frequently to run a new symptom by them.
  • Seeking reassurance from others that they’re not dying.
  • Logging their sleep pattern with an app to check that they are within normal limits.
  • Searching online for every new symptom they have.
  • Feeling a heightened sense of anxiety or panic whenever they think about their health.
  • Receiving a set of tests that show there is no problem, but then demanding new tests need to be run because the first ones weren’t good enough.
  • Believing shortly after a physician or test confirmed there is no concern that there now must be something new developing that wouldn’t have shown up initially.
  • Avoiding going to a doctor, even for routine things, for fear of being told something is wrong with them.
  • Experiencing physical sensations of panic – heart racing, sweating, hyperventilating – and then identifying those panic symptoms as physical proof that something is seriously wrong.

Getting Help

If you or a family member is struggling with health anxiety, it is important to get some help to get free from the suffering of this anxiety loop. A counselor who specializes in health anxiety can help you identify your anxiety cycle and the behaviors that keep you in your anxiety loop while also teaching you how to change your behaviors and your internal language. A counselor who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) can help you address what is going on and help you change how you are functioning.

Health anxiety is one of my specialties, and I would be happy to talk with you or your loved one about the treatment options. I have seen many people freed from their anxiety cycle. Some of the things I have heard from people who have worked on their health anxiety is, “I am free.” “I don’t obsess anymore.” “I am living life again.”

If you would like to schedule a consultation to talk more about your health anxiety, please reach out to me through my contact form.

A great resource to learn more about health anxiety is the book Freedom from Health Anxiety by Karen Lynn Cassiday, PhD. (I do not receive any benefit from referring this book. I have read it and have found it very thorough and informative.)

  1. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – (DSM-5) (5th ed.). American Psychiatric Association. ↩︎
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