Health Anxiety Explained

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What do I do if I can’t stop worrying about my health?

Health Anxiety Explained

It’s normal to worry about your health. Those ‘what if?’ thoughts that prompt you to get a skin check, go for a run, or skip the second (or third) chocolate biscuit for the day can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Sometimes however, people can become preoccupied with their health. They might worry constantly about developing rare or deadly diseases, book frequent doctors’ appointments, or feel panicked when they experience mild physical symptoms, like nausea or a headache. This kind of worry is exhausting and can in fact take a toll on your well-being. If you find it hard to stop worrying about your health, and this worry is impacting your life, then it might helpful to learn more about health anxiety. 

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is intense and persistent worry about having a serious illness that is disproportionate to a person’s actual risk of developing this illness.

People with health anxiety tend to interpret common physical symptoms, like nausea, tiredness, or headaches, as signs of serious illness. They often ‘Google’ their symptoms and seek excessive reassurance from others about their health. People with health anxiety also tend to get frequent medical checks or feel too afraid to ever go to the doctor.

The key feature of health anxiety is disproportionate worry. It’s normal to worry about your health, especially if you’ve had, or are at risk of having, a serious illness (it’s probably a good idea to monitor your cardiac health if you have a strong family history of heart disease).  However, if you find it hard to stop worrying about your health, or your worry is getting in the way of you enjoying life, then it might be helpful to learn more about health anxiety.

What Are The Signs of Health Anxiety?

Psychological Signs

  • Worrying that mild physical symptoms are signs of a serious disease.
  • Worrying about your health even after a medical ‘all clear’.
  • Feeling very distressed by common or mild physical symptoms.
  • Frequently worrying about developing rare or deadly diseases.
  • Becoming distressed by health-related media reports.
  • Feeling persistently tense and on edge.

Behavioural Signs

  • ‘Googling’ your symptoms.
  • Frequently checking your body for symptoms.
  • Frequently asking others for reassurance about your health.
  • Avoiding activities that trigger common physical symptoms (e.g. exercise).
  • Booking frequent medical appointments.
  • Avoiding people and places that remind you of sickness (e.g. doctors, hospitals).

Remember, only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose anxiety following a thorough assessment of your personal situation and circumstances. If you’re concerned about the way you’ve been feeling, please don’t delay speaking with your regular healthcare provider or check out our anonymous online test below and see if one of our online courses could help.

Not Sure Whether to Seek Help?

Take a Test to See How You Feel

If you’re unsure about the way you feel, take our anonymous online test to check whether your levels of stress, anxiety, or depression are within a healthy range, and see if one of our online courses could help.

What Causes Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety isn’t caused by one specific thing. In fact, it most likely develops from a combination of different factors.

There’s good evidence that genes play a role in the development of anxiety in general. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families and having a parent or sibling with anxiety can mean that you’re more likely to experience anxiety as well.

Your personality structure also influences how you feel. For example, being a ‘worrier’, some who tends to think negatively, or someone who likes to feel ‘in control’ can increase your risk of developing health anxiety.

Stressful health experiences can also influence the development of health anxiety. Experiences like having a loved one get very sick or die, witnessing a traumatic accident, working in healthcare, or even being exposed to distressing health-related media (e.g. movies, news reports) can make you feel overly vulnerable to illness.

Becoming a parent can also trigger health anxiety in some people. Being responsible for a child can heighten people’s sense of responsibility and mortality, causing them to become more concerned about their own health. However, this experience is very normal, and would only classify as ‘health anxiety’ if the worry is out-of-proportion or interfering with the person’s well-being.

How To Deal With Health Anxiety

Effective treatments for health anxiety are available, including Psychoeducation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and medication.

Psychoeducation refers to learning about what health anxiety is, how it develops, and what keeps it going. Psychoeducation can help people recognise when they are experiencing anxiety and learn to distinguish between normal and abnormal physical symptoms. This can give people a greater sense of control of their physical and mental health, thereby improving their well-being. Providing education for families or carers also helps them offer support.

The most important pieces of information for a person with health anxiety are:

  • It’s normal to experience unpleasant or uncomfortable physical symptoms, like pain, nausea, and tiredness.
  • Having unpleasant physical symptoms does not necessarily mean that you are seriously ill.
  • Anxiety is not a sign of weakness or a character defect.
  • There are many effective treatments for health anxiety.

CBT is an effective treatment for health anxiety, alone or in conjunction with medication. CBT involves learning skills to:

  • Mange the worried thoughts that characterise health anxiety, and the emotions of fear and anxiety that are triggered by these thoughts.
  • Overcome the unhelpful behaviours that keep health anxiety going, like ‘Googling’ symptoms or booking excessive medical appointments.
  • Re-engage in activities you might have been avoiding because of anxiety.

CBT will often be recommended when:

  • The person has found CBT helpful in the past.
  • The person wants to take an active role in their recovery.
  • The person wants to learn skills to help them get well and stay well.
  • A competent, trained clinician who has expertise in CBT is available, or the person is prepared to use internet CBT (iCBT).
  • The person prefers CBT or iCBT.
  • The person does not want to take medication or there is a medical reason that they cannot take antidepressant medications.

Medications for anxiety are often (somewhat confusingly) called antidepressants. This is because these medications were originally developed to treat depression but have since been found to work for both anxiety and depression.

Antidepressants are generally recommended for people with very intense anxiety, ideally, in combination with CBT. Medications are not often recommended as a first line treatment for mild to moderate anxiety.

Different antidepressant medications work in different ways. You may need to trial more than one type to find the medication that works best for you. Make sure to keep in close contact with your prescribing physician during the early stages of taking medications the side effects can often be difficult to deal with.

Some things to remember when taking these medications are:

  • Take the medication as prescribed.
  • Don’t stop the medication without contacting the health professional who prescribed it.
  • Side effects lessen as your body adjusts. If the side effects don’t diminish, or are unreasonable, contact your health professional.

What is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Health Anxiety

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is considered to be one of the leading psychological treatments for health anxiety. All of our online courses use CBT strategies to help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Click below to see if CBT can help you tackle your symptoms to improve the way you feel.

Strategies For Dealing With Health Anxiety

Cognitive Strategies

People with health anxiety generally expect the worse to happen. They worry about developing deadly or debilitating illnesses, fear that they could die, and believe that believe that they and the people around them won’t be able to cope if they do get sick. These worries tend to persist even after friends and doctors have reassured people that they are healthy.

Cognitive strategies are designed to help people identify and change these unhelpful ways of thinking. By learning how thoughts impact our feelings and behaviours, and how to reframe the way they think about health and illness, people can start to feel more confident, hopeful, and relaxed.

Behavioural Strategies

The key behavioural features of health anxiety are avoidance and reassurance seeking. Avoidance is when you miss out on fun or important experiences because of anxiety, for example, skipping a friends’ birthday party or missing important doctors’ appointment because you’re worried about getting an infection. Reassurance seeking is when you repeatedly ask people, like friends or medical professionals, to reassure you that you’re not sick.

Avoidance and reassurance seeking lessen your anxiety briefly, making you feel better in the short-term. But, in the long-term, they prevent you from overcoming your fears. This keeps anxiety going. Therefore, behavioural strategies aim to help you stop doing the things that make your anxiety worse and start doing things that will build your confidence and resilience.

Coping With Symptoms of Health Anxiety

There are many different strategies that can help you manage the symptoms of health anxiety. Just a few of these techniques are shown below.

Anxiety can cause muscle tension, aches, and pains (which, in turn, often trigger health anxiety). To counteract this:

  • Try to stand up and move around throughout your day.
  • Do some gentle stretches in the evening, to release tension and increase feelings of relaxation.
  • Take some time out of your day to breathe deeply and purposefully relax your muscles, from your head to your toes. You might be surprised at how much tension you hold during the day without even realising.

It can be very tempting to do some online research or ask friends and family about a new symptom you’ve noticed. In fact, many people with health anxiety are so used to seeking reassurance that they don’t even notice when they’re doing it.

  • Try to notice when you’re feeling the urge to Google or check-in with someone about a symptom.
  • If you can, ride this urge out.

Much like food cravings, urges driven by anxiety tend spike and then ease off with time (it’s a bit like riding a psychological wave). The more you practice riding these urge out, the less intense and frequent they will become, reducing your anxiety.

Worrying can sometimes make us feel like there’s something we need to worry about. When we feel nervous and uneasy, we often assume that something bad is about to happen. However, when we look back at the times we’ve worried, often we realise that our worries weren’t very accurate. In this way, worry is a bit like a weatherman who keeps predicting hurricanes will happen – one day, he might be right, but overall, he’s pretty useless.

  • Keep a health anxiety journal.
  • Write down every time you worried about your health and everything you did to address these worries (e.g. doctors’ appointments, online research).
  • After a few weeks, review what you’ve written. How accurate were your predictions? How helpful were the steps you took?

Interested in learning more?

The Health Anxiety Course

Check out our practical, self-paced online course that teaches step-by-step strategies for tackling symptoms of health anxiety.