Identifying and Treating Health Anxiety Disorder
Everyone worries about their health and the health of loved ones, especially after living through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, adults with health anxiety disorder—previously known as hypochondria—experience a long-term, distressing and unreasonable fear of having or developing a serious illness. In many cases these feelings are not accompanied by any physical symptoms at all, while other people routinely mistake minor symptoms or regular bodily sensations for an undiagnosed medical condition.
People experiencing this type of clinical anxiety often go through unnecessary testing and countless hours in hospitals or doctors’ offices. And confirmation of good health from a medical professional or negative test results do not alleviate this distress and worry. Health anxiety varies from mild to extremely serious and in more severe cases, a person may relocate close to the hospital and become unable to hold a job or have meaningful relationships.
Health-related anxiety is unfortunately quite common and is known to affect at least 4-5% of people. This number is likely much higher because, as with other mental illnesses, many cases go undiagnosed and underreported. If you think you or someone you know may be experiencing anxiety around serious illness, read on for the signs and symptoms and possible treatment options.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms?
The primary symptom of health-related anxiety is the constant belief that you or someone you love has an undiagnosed illness. As any symptoms initially appear to be physical, many patients are resistant to the idea that they may have an anxiety disorder. Loved ones often have to intervene to help them understand that they need help. Here are some of the concerning symptoms to watch out for:
- Avoiding people, places and events out of fear of germs; or illness–including absenteeism from work.
- Strained social relationships.
- Constant doctors’ appointments resulting in little to no reassurance from these visits.
- Avoiding the doctor entirely out of fear of illness.
- Spending excessive time on the internet researching various illnesses.
- Worrying about a specific disease immediately after hearing or reading about it.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much.
Some of these symptoms overlap with other mental health disorders including depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Always speak to a health professional for an accurate diagnosis.
What Makes You More Vulnerable?
Experts aren’t exactly sure what causes health anxiety, but they think that there are several factors that may increase your risk. These include:
- Family member(s) who also worry or worried excessively about health and illness.
- Experiencing a life-threatening illness in childhood.
- Death of a loved one.
- Past misdiagnosis of a serious illness.
What Are the Treatment Options?
Fortunately, after an accurate diagnosis, health anxiety disorder is very treatable. Support is focused on improving your symptoms and your ability to function in daily life using psychotherapy or medication.
The first-line treatment is psychotherapy, or more specifically cognitive behavioural therapy, which provides the skills a person needs to manage their disorder. This includes recognizing and understanding what triggers anxiety, changing unhelpful thoughts and learning to stop the behaviour that reinforces this disorder. Stress management techniques and exposure therapy can also be helpful. If your symptoms are severe and you aren’t responding to therapy, your doctor may recommend certain antidepressants. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, so always review treatment options thoroughly with your health professional.
Health anxiety is a long-term medical condition that usually occurs in early adulthood or middle age, can get worse with age and during times of stress. However, with the right treatment plan, you can improve your symptoms, functioning and quality of life.