Most people worry about their health from time and time. This can be a good thing as it can lead to positive changes such as choosing a healthier diet and doing more exercise. However, worrying about health too much can get in the way of normal life. When this happens, it is known as ‘health anxiety’.
The following things are common features of health anxiety:
Worrying thoughts: Those affected by health anxiety are often preoccupied with thoughts that they have, or will get, a serious physical illness. The most common health anxieties are about cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS but health anxiety can be focused on any illness.
Tuning into physical sensations: Often, people with health anxiety are very aware of physical feelings in their bodies. When they notice a pain such as a headache, they assume that it means they have a serious illness (e.g. ‘I‘m having a brain haemorrhage’).
Checking their bodies:People with health anxiety will often check their bodies for signs of changes such as lumps or bumps on the skin. They then worry that normal bodily changes mean something bad, e.g. ‘This bump is the start of a tumour’.
Seeking reassurance: Often, someone with health anxiety will ask other people to reassure them. They may also spend time seeking reassurance on the internet or from medical books. Because they get health worries stuck in their mind, they often go to their GP and ask for tests. When the tests come back negative, the person is reassured by this for a short while. But because their problem is anxiety, their worries soon come back or change, e.g. they begin to worry that the medical team has missed something important. And so the worrying begins all over again.
Avoiding things: Sometimes, people with health anxiety avoid activities such as exercise because of fear that they may do themselves harm, e.g. if they fear that they have an undiagnosed heart problem and think exercise will cause a heart attack. Some people avoid television programmes or articles about illness as it makes them worry more. This can be very extreme, with people unable to read a newspaper in case it mentions the illness that they are afraid of. Some people go to the other extreme and read everything that can be found on an illness.
The "vicious cycle": Anxiety causes physical sensations in anyone. Because health anxiety is a form of anxiety, people who worry about their health do experience the recognised physical signs of anxiety. These include heart beating faster, feeling dizzy, sometimes chest pains or tingling in the fingers and toes. People with health anxiety however, often misinterpret these as signs of a physical illness (e.g. chest pains = heart attack). This makes them more anxious and worried, which can make the anxiety symptoms stronger and encourage even more of the above behaviours. People then get into a vicious cycle where their worry makes them feel worse physically which makes them worry more etc.
To get over health anxiety, it helps to look at your own "vicious cycle" of thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations. You can then learn coping strategies to manage each of these areas.
The Centre for Clinical Interventions provide a free self help module - Overcoming Health Anxiety.