Is health anxiety making you ill?
Hypochondria, also known as Health Anxiety, needs to be taken seriously. This page is to provide a comprehensive guide to health anxiety, including an explanation of what it is, what causes hypochondria, and signs and symptoms.
Dr Elaine Ryan
Page last reviewed and updated by Dr Elaine Ryan on
11th May 2020
- Health Anxiety Treatment
- What is Health Anxiety?
- Health Anxiety Example: Cancer
- What causes Health Anxiety?
- Health Anxiety Symptoms
What is Health Anxiety?
Health Anxiety is living in fear that you have a serious illness, even though you are well. You may not feel well, you probably have physical symptoms in your body and you are constantly worried that you have a serious disease.
You become very sensitive to sensations in your body. Your brain becomes expert on attending to mentions of illness from family, friends, on the news, in magazines and each mention of illness can strike fear in you, that maybe you either have the illness, or can
contract it. It’s okay if you are feeling this, it is just your brain picking up on all mentions of illness.
Signs and symptoms of health anxiety
- Checking and monitoring for potential changes in your body and health
- Googling symptoms you feel in your body ( or fears that you have.)
- Actual physical pain in your body
- Thoughts preoccupied with illness
- Attending doctors to be given a clean bill of health, but not feeling relieved. Scared that they have missed something.
- Needing reassurance
Health Anxiety and the fear that you have cancer
Jane read something in the paper about cancer, then she sees signs about getting health checks everywhere;
She keeps getting aches and pains and thinking something very serious is wrong with her
This makes her afraid and she can’t stop thinking “What if I have cancer?”
So she does to the doctors
Got the all clear, but still feels something is not right. She goes back to the doctor, looking for reassurance
The aches and pains are still there, the fear is still there, the worries about her health are still there – the reassurance is not enough, and she worries that they have missed something, she goes back to the doctors, and the cycle continues.
Video taken from my online self help course on health anxiety
When something makes you worried or anxious about your health, you do something to try to make yourself feel better,
The problem is, the things you do to make yourself feel better, may be making your health anxiety worse.
The things you currently do, to feel better, could be
looking for reassurance – googling, going to the doctor, asking if you are okay, even trying to think it through in your head to reassure yourself that everything is okay, is a form of reassurance
avoiding things that make you feel nervous, anxious or afraid – or that you believe may ‘trigger’ your health fears.
If you are doing things that are not helpful, you could be strengthening Health Anxiety in your brain. You can see what I mean in the following video taken from my online self help course for Health Anxiety.
Video taken from my online self help course on health anxiety
What causes health anxiety?
Health Anxiety comes under the umbrella term of anxiety.
Worries about health, that can make you anxious
For many of us, it is the things that we do to ourselves, that can result in feeling anxious. Our self talk.
If for example, you hear a lot of coverage on the news of, lets say, cancer, this can filter through to your thought processes. You might start to think of people you know that have cancer. You might check it out on the internet and do some research.
The more time you give to this health worry, in your thought processes, the more likely you are to think about it again.
Your brain starts to pay attention. You will start to become finely tuned to anything related to cancer. Your attention is easily grabbed by it, and you may eventually start to worry about the possibility that you might either get cancer in the future or have it now.
These worries, in turn, will make you feel anxious or afraid. Your brain starts to pay more attention. Thoughts relating to cancer cause fear in your body. Your brain shall take note of this, as it may represent a threat for you.
Our brain takes careful note of anything that may cause us harm. If you ever accidentally burned yourself on the stove, your brain will make note of what caused you injury, to help alert you to the hot stove in the future, in order to prevent pain.
Think of this as a better safe than sorry principle. This better safe than sorry principle shall also apply to thoughts that are creating feelings of anxiety or fear in your body, and they can start to be stored in your brain, with all the thoughts and feelings that you get when you think of cancer.
Each time you think of cancer, or hear anything about it, your brain can then give you all the thoughts and feelings of anxiety and fear that you have, that relate to cancer.
It is very easy then, for the initial fear of cancer to spread to other illnesses that may cause you harm, as your brain is already armed with knowledge to protect you from threat. Whether the threat is real or not.
Health worries start to create real physical symptoms in your body.
The more you worry about your health, the more anxious you start to feel. Anxiety creates real physical symptoms in your body. Some of these symptoms include
- muscles tightness and tension
- stomach problems
- blurred vision
- sweating, trembling
Your brain, by this stage, is on the alert for possible danger and it is then easy for you to start to misinterpret what is happening in your body.
If your thought processes are concerned with serious illness, it will not make sense for your brain to think that symptoms you feel in your body may be the result of anxiety, that was caused by worries relating to your health.
Better safe than sorry, your thoughts will be more like this.
What if it is a brain tumour?
Something is wrong with my heart
Your brain frantically searches to try to make sense of what is happening to you. You start to analyze all symptoms and sensations you feel in your body, which will be many at this stage.
You may well undertake some research on the internet looking for something to explain the symptoms you feel. And you will find many possible explanations and diagnosis for how you feel. Which frightens you more.
These thoughts and symptoms will start to interfere with your daily life. It is understandable, that if you are worried that something is seriously wrong with you, and you feel physical symptoms in your body, that you will want a medical work up.
When the results come back clear and you still have the symptoms, you worry more, as you have not received an explanation that makes sense to you and accounts for how you feel. Nor are you able to get the thoughts and fears out of your head.
A vicious circle begins.
- Initial worry that something may be wrong with you
- Over time these worries create anxiety
- The anxiety results in physical symptoms in your body
- The physical symptoms then become a source of concern, making you more convinced that something serious is wrong with you, which in turn
- Creates more anxiety and more physical symptoms which you cannot get relief from, as the tests that you have undertaken show that nothing is physically wrong.
- You cannot get peace of mind that nothing is wrong as your body is experiencing symptoms for which the medical tests cannot explain. You try to find your own explanation by maybe researching on the internet, only to find several serious illnesses that appear to account for your symptoms, which further reinforces the vicious cycle.
Health Anxiety Treatment
If you want to get over Health Anxiety, the recommended treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT. I would also personally recommend that you find someone who can also offer you Acceptance And Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness, as I firmly believe you then have all the tools you need to not only understand Health Anxiety, but get your life back to normal.
If you would like my help, I am a Dr of Psychology and specialise only in Anxiety Disorders, you do not have to see me in person, as I have an online program that follows the format of face to face sessions with myself and includes all the treatment models mentioned above.
Get more information on my course