Health Anxiety: Symptoms and Treatment

Dr Elaine Ryan

Retrain Your Brain®

If you want my help with health anxiety please see my online course

Table of Contents

What is health anxiety?

Health Anxiety is an obsessive worry about your health, where the person is concerned they either have a severe illness or may develop one in the future. Although classed as an anxiety disorder, it shares characteristics of OCD in that the person obsesses about their health and may carry out compulsions to reassure themselves that they are not ill.

How do I know if I have health anxiety?

Health anxiety has particular signs and symptoms.

Symptoms

The symptoms you feel are real, but they are not coming from as dark a place as you believe.

This list is not exhaustive, and the physical symptoms are real, but they come from experiencing high anxiety levels, and you can read more about that here.

Signs

What causes health anxiety?

Vulnerability factors

When trying to understand how your health anxiety started, an excellent place to start is looking at underlying factors that might have made you more vulnerable to developing health anxiety.

  • Did you have an illness as a child that might have made you more alert to symptoms in your body?
  • The way you react to physical symptoms may make you more prone to developing health anxiety regarding how you think about the ailment. For example, can you brush it off, or do you go to the worst possible scenario?
  • Did you grow up with an overly anxious parent who was excessively concerned about health?
  • Did you grow up with a parent or close relative who had severe health conditions?

 

Why doesn’t it go away? 

Health anxiety will not go away on its’ own if you are unintentionally helping to maintain it.

At the start of this article, I stated that health anxiety shares characteristics of OCD in terms of obsessions and compulsions. The compulsions help in the short term but eventually keep you stuck with concerns about your health.

For example, if you have a headache and your mind jumps to the conclusion that it might be a brain tumour, it is understandable if you Google brain tumour symptoms.

This googling or seeking reassurance is a compulsion in that you feel compelled to do something to ease the fear that you might have a brain tumour. Compulsions like this only make you more anxious and further down a rabbit hole. Just like OCD, you need to learn to stop any compulsive behaviours to stop the cycle.

In addition, the more you worry about having an illness, the more likely you are to have similar thoughts in the future, as you are unknowingly ‘teaching’ your brain to do this. You are forming pathways in your brain, which I shall explain in the following video.

How do I get over health anxiety?

Please note if you meet with a mental health professional, the correct diagnosis is illness anxiety disorder. The name was changed in the latest edition of DSM-5, a manual used for diagnosis.

Start with meeting a licensed mental health professional or your local GP who can help with diagnosis.

How is it diagnosed?

  • A medical doctor will rule out physical illness.
  • Your mental health professional will assess to ensure that another condition cannot better explain your symptoms before diagnosis is given.

 

The HSE and NHS mention some self-help strategies to use, and I agree with starting with self-help as it follows a stepped care approach to treatment, where you begin with self-help and, if necessary, then meet with a therapist for face-to-face therapy.

The model of therapy most commonly used is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Outlook

Health anxiety can be a debilitating condition, but practical ways such as CBT can help you overcome it.

Dr Elaine Ryan

Dr Elaine Ryan

Dr Elaine Ryan is a Counselling Psychologist with 20 years experience. She specialises in OCD and anxiety related conditions. She worked in the National Health Service before setting up private practice. Dr Ryan obtained her PsychD from The University of Surrey.