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Generally we think of health anxiety as a continuum of anxiety related to worries about health that are resistant to medical reassurances. To know if you have health anxiety ask yourself if you have worry about your health that is persistent, out of proportion, causing you unhelpful behaviors, and interferes with your day to day functioning.
You can have health anxiety if you have:
a real illness
nothing wrong with you.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see if you might suffer from health anxiety.
If you answered yes to several of these questions than you may have health anxiety. It's important to know you are not alone and you are not crazy!
If you have health anxiety, its important to face your problem with kindness and compassion and to understand many people are dealing with the same thing.
We don't entirely understand health anxiety, but it does seem that childhood experiences contribute to it. If you had experiences with physical or sexual abuse in childhood, you are more likely to have health anxiety. It may be that you were unable to express your feelings about the abuse, and because of the physical nature of it, you suppressed those feelings in your body. If you were a child who had an experience such as living with an alcoholic parent, poverty, or other stressors you are also more likely to have health anxiety.
Additionally, if you had experiences with death or sickness in your childhood or had a similar difficult experience in adulthood you may also develop health anxiety. It's possible that you received certain messages in your family that helped form beliefs about your health that contributed to this anxiety.
Some people may also develop health anxiety after experiences with tests such as a mammogram or with an actual illness such as cancer.
Currently the most effective treatment for health anxiety is considered to be cognitive behavioral therapy ( CBT). I also incorporate mindfulness based techniques into my therapy as research is finding them to be equally effective.
CBT suggests you ask yourself what are all of the components that go into creating and maintaining anxiety and then get an understanding of how to modify those components.
Look at the picture below to get a sense of how the CBT model helps conceptualize health anxiety.
If you have health anxiety it's likely you pay too much attention to your physical sensations, and then have inaccurate thoughts about what they mean. We call these internal triggers and they can set off a chain reaction which creates a false alarm in your body convincing you that you are in danger.
You are likely also triggered into this alarm in other ways that people without health anxiety are not. For example by being around people who are sick, by hearing something about illness on the news, or by getting a sore throat. We call these external triggers.
We all have false beliefs and assumptions that we learn in childhood or as we are growing up. People with health anxiety likely have false beliefs about health. Some of them may be " If my doctor doesn't know what's wrong with me, it's very serious" or " If I miss a symptoms I will die" or "If I have dizziness it could be cancer". Figuring out what your false beliefs are can be important to helping yourself with your health anxiety.
CBT suggests we alter those false beliefs. Mindfulness approaches require only that we recognize our beliefs and thoughts are not true.
One way CBT suggests we modify anxiety is by stopping particular behaviors. Checking and reassurance seeking are things people with anxiety do to temporarily reduce their discomfort and fear. CBT suggests we can modify our checking and reassurance seeking and improve our anxiety. If you have health anxiety modifying your checking and reassurance behavior might be an easy place to start helping yourself at home, even without a therapist.
Examples of reassurance seeking are:
Examples of checking include:
Checking and reassurance seeking are part of compulsive behaviors that maintain the cycle of health anxiety. They reinforce the idea that you are in danger and that your thoughts about your health being in jeopardy are true. Instead of this behavior, we want you to learn not to respond to your anxious thoughts about your health, or give them attention, so that they go away.
Learning to tolerate thoughts, feelings, and sensations rather than try and get rid of them are a fundamental part of helping yourself with health anxiety.
Finding one good doctor that you trust is paramount for people with health anxiety. Find a primary care doctor, gynecologist, and eye doctor etc, and do not shop around after that. Let them know you have health anxiety and you need them to give you one opinion that is clear and concise. Then, do not meet with multiple medical providers or seek further testing then they recommend.
Depending on the severity of your health anxiety these tips may be enough to help you. If not you may need to find the help of a therapist who can engage you in a more comprehensive treatment plan.
Furer,P. (2007, March). Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Health Anxiety and Fear of Death. Paper presented at ADAA 27th Anual Conference , ST Louis Missouri
Starčević Vladan, & Noyes, R. (2014). Hypochondriasis and health anxiety: a guide for clinicians. New York: Oxford University Press.