Being worried about your health is natural, even more so since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the slightest cough can warrant a symptom search online. It makes sense – anxiety is our body’s response to a perceived threat.
But when the occasional worry turns to irrational fear, it might be cause for concern. You may be experiencing a disorder classified as health anxiety (previously referred to as hypochondria).
Health anxiety is a common condition, diagnosed in 4% to 5% of people. But experts believe that the disorder often goes undiagnosed and may affect more than 10% of the population. The good news is that once it’s diagnosed, the condition is treatable.
Keep in mind, you may have symptoms and strongly believe an undiagnosed physical condition (and not health anxiety) is the cause. If that happens, do not hesitate to seek a second or even third opinion.
Here’s what you need to know to recognize the signs of health anxiety:
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder characterized by a preoccupation with medical illness. Basically, it makes you worry about being severely sick when you are otherwise healthy and relatively symptom-free. There are two distinct conditions that qualify as health anxiety:
Illness anxiety disorder
People with illness anxiety disorder typically have no medical symptoms but live with the ongoing fear of getting a disease or having a major medical emergency. They tend to misinterpret normal sensations, like changes in breathing, heart rate or saliva levels, as dangerous.
This type of anxiety can be especially confusing because as anxiety levels increase, so do the body’s reactions to that anxiety. The sensations felt are real. But the reaction to those sensations may not always be rational.
Somatic symptom disorder
Like illness anxiety disorder, somatic symptom disorder causes extreme distress about health. Someone with this disorder may focus intently on common physical symptoms, like pain, headache or fatigue – and they tend to worry excessively about the possible cause of those symptoms.
Even when physicians don’t find a medical reason for the symptoms, somatic symptom disorder can cause extreme anxiety. A mental health professional may have more experience diagnosing and ruling out somatic symptom disorder.
Signs of health anxiety
Being concerned about your health does not necessarily mean that you have health anxiety. But if your concerns are ongoing, you may see a pattern develop. For example, your online search history may only focus on health issues. Or your primary care provider might notice that you call more often than necessary or ask for medical tests frequently.
Typical signs of health anxiety may include:
- Having no symptoms but still fearing that you are sick
- Seeking health information constantly, either online or from others
- Worrying that you have a disease after hearing about it on the news
- Performing unreasonable health-related behaviors, such as screening your body for disease repeatedly or avoiding medical appointments to prevent a diagnosis
- Continuing to worry excessively, even after a doctor and medical tests reassure you that you are healthy
- Letting health worries interfere with your life, family, work and hobbies.
The dangers of health anxiety
Some people with health anxiety choose to constantly consult their physician and ask for testing. But for others, the health anxiety may cause them to avoid doctors and medical care altogether. The fear of bad news may keep them from having a treatable condition diagnosed or from getting preventative screenings.
If your health anxiety is severe, it can also interfere with your quality of life. You may find yourself avoiding work or social activities or struggling to maintain close relationships.
What to do if you think you have health anxiety (hypochondria)
To make sure that your health concerns are indeed anxiety and not a physical medical issue, you should schedule an appointment with your primary care provider. A thorough exam can rule out any possible medical problems. Again, if you believe your condition is being misdiagnosed, consider getting a second or third opinion.
If you are physically healthy, your provider may recommend evaluation by a mental health professional, who can treat the disorder. Common treatments for anxiety include medication and psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
CBT focuses on how we think (our cognition) and how we act (our behavior) in response to those thoughts. The goal of CBT is to help you overcome your fears by changing any irrational thought patterns and the corresponding behaviors. You may choose to see a therapist in person, attend group sessions or seek out online therapy.
If you think you’re experiencing health anxiety, reach out to your primary care physician.