Most of us worry about our health from time to time. But for some people, this worry never goes away and becomes a problem in itself. Health anxiety can be described as obsessive worrying about your health, usually to the point where it causes great distress and affects your ability to function properly. Some people with health anxiety have unexplained physical symptoms, such as chest pain or headaches, which they assume are a sign of serious disease despite the doctor’s reassurance. Others may just be permanently anxious about their future health, worrying about things such as ‘what if I get cancer or heart disease?’ People with health anxiety can fall into one of two extremes:
- Constantly seeking information and reassurance: for example, obsessively researching illnesses from the internet; frequently checking your body for problems, such as lumps or sores; frequently checking your vital signs, such as pulse or blood pressure and booking frequent GP appointments, or
- Avoidant behaviour: avoiding medical TV programmes, GP appointments and anything else that might trigger the anxiety, and avoiding activities such as exercise that are perceived to make the condition worse
Neither of these behaviours are healthy, and need to be addressed if you wish to break the cycle of health anxiety. Please note: not everyone who worries about health problems has health anxiety. Experiencing symptoms caused by something you and your doctor can’t identify clearly can cause anxiety. In some cases, a second opinion or further tests may be necessary.
What Causes Health Anxiety?
The exact cause of health anxiety is not known – there are many reasons why someone worries too much about their health. While there is some evidence that health anxiety, like all anxiety disorders, may in part be an inherited or biologically based problem, it is generally accepted that several other important factors can increase the likelihood of you developing this problem.
(1) You may be going through a particularly stressful period of your life.
(2) Being around family members or others who experience a serious illness
During our childhood and adolescence, our experiences can influence how we view ourselves, how we view others, and how we view the future. If we witness someone experiencing pain and suffering it may lead to us feeling vulnerable and concerned that this could happen to us too. If we have witnessed someone with a progressive illness, we may feel quite helpless or we may develop a sense that “illness” means “nothing can be done”.
(3) The death of a family member or someone known to you
While death is an eventual certainty for all of us, on a day-to-day basis most of us can tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing when and how it will happen. However, if we are put in a situation where we are made to think about what our own death will be like and the impact our death will have on others, most people will feel somewhat uncomfortable. The death of someone close or known to us, whilst often distressing in itself, can increase our awareness of our own mortality. If we have witnessed someone suffer a prolonged disease prior to death, we may associate illness with intense suffering and certain death. If the death was sudden, and especially if it was of someone previously perceived to be “healthy”, it can lead to an increase in our sense of vulnerability and helplessness.
(4) Experiencing a medical problem
Experiencing a medical problem can lead us to being more “tuned in” to our bodily sensations and changes, and alert us to our chances of further medical issues or even death.
(5) A family member suffering with health anxiety
We learn a lot about the world from those around us. So, if we have grown up observing or listening to others worry about health or frequently checking for signs of illness or injury, we are more likely to use these same coping strategies when we are confronted with health issues or bodily sensations.
(6) Personality can play a role
You may be vulnerable to health anxiety because you are a worrier generally. You may find it difficult to handle emotions and conflict, and tend to ‘catastrophise’ when faced with problems in your life.
(7) Negative information from the media
The internet and media allow us immediate access to a range of health related stories and information. However, in an effort to “sell” stories, the media must ensure that their shows/stories grab the attention of the public. Health stories in the media or on the internet have at times focussed on rare diseases, incurable health problems, and fatal conditions. They have reported on the experiences of patients who were misdiagnosed, sometimes despite repeated efforts to seek medical help. While these cases do occur, the emphasis sometimes portrayed in the media on these unlikely conditions and events can lead us to question our medical care and to view our bodily sensations and changes with greater suspicion
How Common is Health Anxiety?
The onset of health anxiety can be at any age. It commonly it starts in adolescence or in young adults. It may be more common in women and occurs in about 5% of patients attending a GP’s surgery. Not everyone has the same experience of health anxiety – it depends on the severity of your problem and the culture you are from.
How can talking to Siobhan help?
Together we will identify your thoughts, behaviours and emotions and explore the things you currently do to cope with your anxiety. Working with the unhealthy thoughts and behaviours that maintain your health anxiety, we will look at ways to challenge the way you interpret symptoms, to encourage a more balanced and realistic view. This will help you to:
- learn what seems to make the symptoms worse
- develop methods of coping with the symptoms
- keep yourself more active, even if you still have symptoms