Is Health Anxiety Taking Over Your Life?

It’s a common scenario: you start feeling a bit under the weather, and before you know it, you’re on Google trying to diagnose yourself. Suddenly, every ache and pain feels like a symptom of a serious illness, and you sink into a spiral of worry. But why do we do this?

One reason is that the internet offers a sense of control. When we’re feeling sick, we often feel helpless and out of control. By looking up our symptoms online, we’re trying to take back some of that control and figure out what’s wrong with us. It can be comforting to think that we have the power to diagnose ourselves, even if the information we find isn’t always accurate.

While this habit is common, and usually the worry goes away when we feel better, for some people it can become compulsive. When worrying about your health becomes persistent, it might be that you are struggling with health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder. You may constantly worry about developing a serious illness, even when there is no medical evidence to support your concerns.

What Are The Symptoms of Health Anxiety?

Symptoms of health anxiety can include excessive worry and overthinking about health and dying, frequent visits to the doctor, and an intense fear of developing a serious illness. You might get swept up in thoughts of what would happen if you became sick, or even imagine the worst. These symptoms can have a significant impact on quality of life, as well as your relationships with others.

Is Health Anxiety the Same As Hypochondria?

No, health anxiety and hypochondria are not the same thing. While they both involve excessive worry, there are some key differences between the two conditions. Health anxiety centres around a fear of contracting a serious illness, or fear that minor health issues will develop into something more serious. People with health anxiety may frequently check their symptoms and seek reassurance from doctors or others, but they do not typically believe that they have a serious illness, unless they find enough evidence for it.

Hypochondria, on the other hand, is characterised by a persistent belief that one has a serious illness, despite medical reassurance to the contrary. People with hypochondria may be preoccupied with their health and may have a heightened awareness of bodily sensations, leading them to misinterpret normal bodily functions as symptoms of a serious illness. They may also tend to excessively seek medical care and may have difficulty accepting a doctor’s reassurance that they are healthy. However even though health anxiety and hypochondria are different, they often have similar underlying beliefs.

Health Anxiety & Core Beliefs

If you have anxiety about your health, you most likely have inaccurate core beliefs around health and disease, which have led you to become hypervigilant of your health. This might mean you are more sensitive to minor changes in your bodily sensations and functions, and consequently, you misinterpret these as symptoms of illness.

Dysfunctional beliefs are thought patterns that contribute to negative emotions and behaviours.

In the case of hypochondria, or health anxiety, these beliefs may include a belief that:

• Any physical symptom or change in health is a sign of a serious illness
• Seeking medical help is the only way to feel better
• A lack of certainty about one’s health is intolerable
• Being sick is the worst thing that could happen

These beliefs can lead to excessive worry and fear about one’s health, as well as avoidance of activities and situations that may trigger health anxiety.

Ultimately, health anxiety is often fear based; you might fear the consequences of becoming ill, which leads you into a negative spiral of intrusive thoughts. You might fear getting sick and not being able to work, becoming a burden to your family or even dying. It’s important to remember that health anxiety is very good at luring us into a negative thought spiral, meaning we begin to catastrophise and plan for disaster. This can really limit how much you can enjoy and participate in your life – but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take back control over your thoughts.

What Causes Health Anxiety?

There is no one specific cause of health anxiety. In most cases, it is thought to develop because of a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Some potential causes of health anxiety include:

• A family history of anxiety or other mental health conditions
• A personal history of anxiety or other mental health conditions
• A previous experience with a serious illness or medical condition
• Exposure to stressful or traumatic events

Covid-19 and Health Anxiety

One recent trigger for health anxiety has been the Covid-19 pandemic. This has not just affected those with health anxiety, but also created a great deal of fear and worry around health in those who never previously struggled with it. The constant news coverage and uncertainty surrounding the virus exacerbated their concerns and fears about their own health.

Additionally, the pandemic led to changes in healthcare systems and access to medical care, which made it more difficult for individuals with health anxiety to get the support they needed. The isolation and stress caused by the pandemic also contributed to an increase in health anxiety symptoms.

Uncertainty can be a significant trigger for individuals with health anxiety. When there is a lack of clarity or information about a situation, it can the anxiety worse. The Covid-19 pandemic was a prime example of how uncertainty can exacerbate health anxiety. The constant news coverage and changing guidelines made it difficult for individuals with health anxiety to feel confident in their decisions about their health and safety.

Overcoming Health Anxiety

One of the treatments for health anxiety is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of therapy helps individuals understand and change their thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to their anxiety. It can also teach them coping skills to manage their anxiety in a healthy way.

Other forms of psychotherapy that may be helpful in treating health anxiety include:

• Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
• Mindfulness-based therapy
• Interpersonal therapy
• Exposure therapy

Whilst there are various forms of psychotherapy that can help treat health anxiety, the right method for you will depend on what is behind your health anxiety. For example, somebody who has many different health conditions is more likely to experience health anxiety because their fears are based on their previous experience. This means that they might need a different approach to somebody who has always been healthy, or whose beliefs are rooted in family history or related to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

As the best type of psychotherapy can vary depending on your personal circumstances, it is important to find a therapist who has been trained in a range of different therapeutic approaches, such as an integrative counsellor or therapist. That way, they can tailor a range of coping strategies and techniques to you, allowing you to feel heard, seen and understood as an individual who is going through a tough time. Your therapist will validate you and talk about your health anxiety with compassion, which is something you may not be used to when dealing with friends, family and medical professionals.

The Bottom Line

Living with health anxiety can be tough, particularly as we recover from the effects of Covid-19. It’s important to remember that you are not alone, and there are many struggling with the same fears and concerns as you. Try to find support, through therapy, online support groups, or simply talking to friends and family members who will validate your concerns and offer encouragement. Having a support system can make a big difference in your ability to manage your health anxiety and improve your overall mental health.

As a BACP-registered integrative counsellor, I am trained to work with a wide range of issues, including health anxiety, panic attacks and phobias. I use a range of therapeutic methods that I tailor to the needs of each client based on their history and goals for the future.

For psychotherapy to be successful, the essential element is the strength of the relationship between you and your therapist. This is why I offer a free, no-obligation 15-minute chat so that you can get a feel as to whether I’m the right therapist for you. We can talk through your concerns, and you’ll be able to ask me any questions. You can arrange this at a time that suits you by sending me an email.