What You Need to Know About Health Anxiety

What is health anxiety?

Although it’s normal to be concerned about your health if you notice changes in your body, you should not be so concerned that it causes you to feel high levels of stress which interferes with your daily life.

Health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder, is where you constantly assume the worst about your state of health and convince yourself that you have or are developing a serious illness. This is especially true if you experience minor symptoms that do not necessarily indicate a severe illness or if you do not have any symptoms at all.

Health anxiety can fall into two distinct categories: care-seeking and care-avoidant. Most people who experience health anxiety have the care-seeking type, which involves scheduling an excessively high number of medical appointments and searching for more information about the illness they think they have.

Care-avoidant health anxiety falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. People with this type of health anxiety tend to avoid seeking medical treatment out of fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness.

Although health anxiety can be confused with somatic symptom disorder, the two conditions are not quite the same. Somatic symptom disorder involves a strong focus on specific physical symptoms that are not usually accompanied by the same level of fear as health anxiety. Health anxiety can also occur if you do not experience any symptoms at all.

Health anxiety was known as hypochondria in the past, but this term is no longer used by medical professionals because of the negative connotations associated with it. Health anxiety is the preferred and more accurate term.

Symptoms

Symptoms of health anxiety can vary widely from person to person. Outlined below are some of the emotional, physical, and lifestyle-related symptoms you may experience if you have health anxiety.

Emotional symptoms

Constantly feeling worried about your health is often the first sign that you may be experiencing health anxiety, especially if you never experienced these concerns in the past. You may find yourself Googling symptoms and convincing yourself that your minor issue is a serious illness. You may also search for information about rare diseases you have no real reason to assume you have.

People with health anxiety can become so focused on an illness that runs in their family, or on the idea of becoming sick, that they constantly think about it, wondering if the tiniest changes to their health are a signal that they are developing a serious, or even terminal, illness. 

Physical symptoms

When you have health anxiety, you can be convinced that minor symptoms, which may not mean anything at all, are a sign of a serious health problem. Much like other types of anxiety, overthinking a minor problem and automatically assuming the worst can lead to significant stress and mental health concerns.

Your emotional state can cause stomach aches, headaches, or other physical symptoms. You may also withdraw from friends, family, and activities you care about because you think they might expose you to illness or you may become too ill to enjoy them. 

Lifestyle symptoms

Because health anxiety leads you to have a skewed view of your health, it will also likely impact your relationship with your doctor. You might seek care by scheduling far more medical appointments than you need in the hopes of getting some relief by finding out that you do not have the serious illness you think you might have.

If you avoid medical care, then you may rarely or never see your doctor out of fear that your suspicions will be confirmed and you will be diagnosed with a serious illness. Even if your doctor does tell you that you are not seriously ill and not at a high risk of becoming so, you may not trust or believe them and the results of any tests you have undergone. This may cause you to become care-avoidant instead of care-seeking.

Distrust and excessive concern may seep into other areas of your life if you struggle to stop thinking about all of your potential health problems long enough to enjoy activities and people you used to prioritize. You may constantly talk about your potential illness to friends or family members.

You may also avoid going places or seeing people altogether out of fear of being exposed to an illness. Feeling like you cannot safely enjoy your normal life can further contribute to stress and other mental health problems.

These symptoms may also contribute to you having a difficult time managing your basic needs. Stress or fear can cause you to miss work, have problems in your relationships, and face financial difficulties by racking up excessive medical bills from insisting on attending more appointments than you need or taking time off work to attend them.

When to see a doctor

You should generally see a doctor once your health anxiety and stress start to significantly interfere with your life. Although it is usually not necessary to seek treatment immediately, by seeing your doctor once you notice negative effects, you increase your chances of recovering sooner.

At an earlier stage, you may also respond better to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other treatment options.

Causes

Pinpointing a definite cause of a particular case of health anxiety can be challenging as it can be caused by a range of factors. However, your family's attitude toward health, your personality, and genuine illnesses you may have had in the past are common possible causes of health anxiety. 

Family attitudes toward health

You may be more likely to develop health anxiety if your parents or other close family members have unusual attitudes about your health or their own.

If your parents were overprotective of your health as a child, or you constantly heard them talking about their own health problems and fears, you may have come to see this type of excessive concern as normal.

Although this type of behavior can make you more likely to experience health anxiety, even if your parents were overly concerned about a legitimate health problem you had as a child, it is especially likely if you were relatively healthy and still experienced constant concern about your health from your family.

While less common, the opposite can also be true. If your parents tended to ignore your or their own potential health problems as a child, you may have developed your own fears about whether enough was being done to help you stay healthy. Although this can be a legitimate fear, it can result in similar struggles as an adult that you may need to work through.

Family influence, especially as a child, can contribute to you developing an unhealthy perspective about your health in adulthood. You may also pass these views onto your own children.

However, there are steps you can take to manage your fears and keep them from negatively affecting yourself and your children.

History of serious illness

If you have dealt with a legitimate serious health problem in the past, especially as a child, it can be difficult to shake the fear of developing another one.

Adults who have experienced childhood cancer or other serious and ongoing illnesses as children tend to be more aware of changes to their bodies than the average person. They may also be more fearful that those changes might signal the return of a past illness or the emergence of a new illness that will have a significant impact on their lives.

While it is normal, and even a good thing, to be vigilant about potential signs of illness, being so paranoid about it that it interferes with you living your life can do more harm than good.

The excessive stress that health anxiety can put on your body may even leave you more susceptible to developing physical health issues. 

Personality traits

Certain personality traits can also make you more susceptible to developing health anxiety or other types of anxiety.

While you might consider your perfectionism to be a good thing, it can have negative effects on your physical and mental health. Although it is fine to expect the most from your body and want to do what you can to keep it healthy, it is also important to realize that everyone experiences minor health problems from time to time and no one will go through life maintaining a state of perfect health.

A tendency to worry excessively about other areas of your life, such as finances or work, can also make you more likely to develop health anxiety.

You may also have a lower tolerance for pain or discomfort than the average person, which can lead you to believe that minor symptoms are more serious than they actually are.

For example, you might associate cold symptoms with something much more serious, especially if a particular symptom feels similar to a symptom of a larger actual health problem you experienced when you were younger.

Diagnosing health anxiety

Health anxiety is typically diagnosed through a series of tests, as well as a physical exam, that is intended to rule out the possibility of an actual serious illness.

Although your doctor may suspect that you may have health anxiety if you have a history of requesting excessive medical appointments or avoiding medical care altogether, they should still address your concerns and ensure that you are not seriously ill.

If your doctor rules out any physical issues, in most situations, you will be referred to a mental health professional to discuss your concerns and conduct a thorough psychological evaluation. This evaluation will include a self-assessment and questionnaire to give the mental health professional insight into what may be causing your health anxiety.

The mental health professional will also assess how health anxiety is affecting your life. This information is important in determining the most appropriate treatment options for you.

Your conversation or written questionnaire will cover a wide range of areas to narrow down possible root causes of your health anxiety, including:

  • Your health history

  • Family attitudes toward health

  • Other possible signs of abuse or neglect you may have experienced

  • Any past or current problems with alcohol or substance abuse

  • Any physical symptoms you may be experiencing

  • How your health anxiety is affecting your daily life and relationships

Your answers can help your mental health professional determine whether your health anxiety is an isolated issue or if it is connected to another mental health concern, such as generalized anxiety disorder or depression.

Evaluating the possibility that you may be experiencing more than one mental health concern simultaneously can help them to determine whether your health anxiety needs to be treated on its own or would be better managed in combination with treatment options that are targeted toward treating other mental health problems.

Treatments

Depending on the results of your physical and mental health evaluations, your treatment plan will likely include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, or a combination of the two.

CBT is by far the most common treatment option for health anxiety, as well as most other types of anxiety, and medications may be a helpful supplement for treating the most severe cases of health anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Most health anxiety cases will be treated using only CBT. This type of psychotherapy takes a deep look at your thoughts, why you may be having these thoughts, and how they are impacting your emotions and behaviors.

In the case of health anxiety or another form of anxiety, CBT involves evaluating specific, irrational thoughts and beliefs and replacing them with positive, reality-based alternatives.

This process helps to decrease the meaning that negative thoughts and beliefs have for you and the overall power they have over your life. For example, if you start to believe you have cancer, you can experience problems over time as a result of this belief.

Lifestyle changes

Your therapist may also recommend certain lifestyle changes to reduce the amount of time you spend overthinking your health.

Many people who experience health anxiety fall into behavioral patterns that enable their destructive thoughts, such as turning to alcohol or other substances as a means of coping with stress and anxiety.

Instead of spending hours searching for health information online, try to engage in exercise or other healthy activities.

Addressing these behaviors can help you to avoid some of the sources of the problem and replace them with alternatives that contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Medication

CBT and lifestyle changes can be enough to treat health anxiety and manage symptoms. However, psychotherapy may not be enough for a small percentage of people with health anxiety, in which case medication may be prescribed.

Certain medications that are typically used to treat depression and generalized anxiety disorder, such as SSRIs, may also be prescribed for health anxiety if the anxiety is severely impacting your life.

After attending therapy for a sufficient amount of time to reasonably expect to notice a difference, and after making positive lifestyle changes, medication may be prescribed.

However, it is important to note that each medication has side effects, especially if you are not currently experiencing the types of mental health concerns it is usually prescribed for.

Your medical provider will generally only prescribe medication if it is clear that other treatment options are not working.

Prevention

Like other types of anxiety or other mental health problems, there is little information available surrounding the steps you may be able to take to prevent health anxiety from occurring in the first place. There have not been enough in-depth studies to identify prevention methods.

To give yourself the best chance of successfully taking control of your health, you should pay attention to your own symptoms and seek treatment as soon as you notice that health anxiety is beginning to interfere with your life.

CBT can best help you to manage your health anxiety if you seek help as soon as you sense your health anxiety becoming a problem. It is far better to take action early, rather than wait until issues become more severe.

Taking simple lifestyle steps to improve your overall health, such as exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, can also boost your mental health and help you avoid developing anxiety disorders.

Statistics

If you are constantly worried about your health, you are not alone. According to Harvard Health Publishing, approximately 4-5% of people experience this condition at some point in their lives.

Women are approximately twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with some type of anxiety disorder during their lifetime, and this is also true in the case of health anxiety.

Men who experience some form of health anxiety tend to be more likely to exhibit avoidant behaviors, including avoiding seeking treatment for other illnesses and injuries.

Women tend to be more likely to seek excessive medical attention, both for themselves and for their children. Women are also more likely to spend significant amounts of time researching potential health problems.

Health anxiety also tends to be the most common in early and mid-adulthood, but it can be ongoing and occur at any age.

Doctors & specialists

While you should first contact your doctor with your concerns about health anxiety, they will often refer you to a mental health provider if test results show there is no physical medical issue.

Your mental health specialist will then handle the majority of your diagnosis and therapy process. You will discuss your symptoms and any factors that may contribute to your health anxiety with this specialist over the course of your treatment process.

Health anxiety can have a significant impact on your life, but it doesn't have to. Talk to your doctor today if you are concerned you may be experiencing health anxiety.

Rather than scheduling another appointment for the illness, your mind wants you to think you have, begin the process of learning to manage your thoughts and improve your outlook on life.

Clinical trials for health anxiety

Actively recruiting
Efficacy Trial of the CALM Intervention
CT, MD (US)
Actively recruiting
Targeting Attention Orienting to Social Threat to Reduce Social Anxiety in Youth
CT, FL (US)
Actively recruiting
Trial With the Treatment of Sertraline in Youth With Generalized, Separation and/or Social Anxiety Disorders.
NY, OH (US)