The last 2 years with the global pandemic has brought with it a commonly accepted lifestyle where we all doubt our illnesses and symptoms for something more serious. Whenever we, or someone we love, had a little cough or a slight temperature it was immediate anxiety about it being Covid and rushing to do tests to rule it out. This lifestyle has particularly not helped people who suffer from health anxiety. But what is the difference between being worried about a health problem and having health anxiety? How is it diagnosed? And how can it then be overcome?
What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is an obsessive and irrational worry about having a serious medical condition. It is also known as illness anxiety and was formerly known as hypochondria. This condition is a person’s imagination of physical symptoms of illness or a person’s misinterpretation of a normal bodily reaction as something serious linked to a disease or illness. Health anxiety most often occurs in early or middle adulthood and can worsen with age.
A person who suffers from health anxiety will have many of these symptoms:
- constantly worrying about their health
- frequently checking their body for signs of illness (i.e lumps, tingling or pain)
- are always asking people for reassurance to tell them they are ok
- worrying that a doctor may have missed something
- obsessively looking at health information on the internet and comparing their symptoms
- they avoid watching medical TV programmes
- act as if they are ill to avoid doing things
If you suffer from anxiety already then you will experience symptoms such as headaches and a racing heartbeat. If you suffer from health anxiety then these normal signs are thought of as something more serious.
There isn’t any diagnosed reason why people develop health anxiety but professionals believe that it can stem from a few situations. If you have someone in your family who has worried excessively about their health, then this will have been passed onto you. If you have suffered a lot as a child with serious health conditions, then as an adult you will be anxious about any symptom being something serious. Your diet can affect your level of anxiety.
How is Health Anxiety Diagnosed?
If you are thinking that you are suffering from health anxiety then the best thing to do is to speak to your GP. They will then perform physical examinations and tests to rule out any of the health conditions you are worried about. If they then conclude that you do not have a health condition, then they will refer you to a mental health professional.
They will then perform a psychological evaluation, which involves questions about your symptoms, stressful situations, family history, worries, and issues affecting your life. They will ask you to complete a psychological self-assessment or questionnaire and ask you about drug and alcohol intake.
People with health anxiety will then be diagnosed with either of the following:
- Illness Anxiety Disorder. This is if the person has no physical symptoms or only mild symptoms
- Somatic symptom disorder. This is when the person has symptoms that are perceived as distressing to them or if they have multiple symptoms.
How is Health Anxiety Treated?
The most common treatment for health anxiety is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy or CBT. CBT can be very effective in treating health anxiety because it teaches you skills that can help you manage your disorder. CBT is a popular form of talking therapy used to overcome many issues. CBT therapists are well trained in understanding the way that we think and how what we do affects the way we feel. CBT sessions are often quite structured. After talking things through so that they can understand your problem, you can expect your therapist to set goals with you. This is so that you both know what you are working towards in your sessions. At the start of most sessions, you will set an agenda together and agree on what that session will concentrate on. CBT treatment for health anxiety will involve some of the following:
- Developing an understanding more about the normal range of bodily feelings that most people experience
- Talking about and considering different interpretations for your experiences
- Working with your thoughts and images
- Experimenting with what happens when you reduce how often you check and seek reassurance
- Deliberately exposing yourself to your worries
All clinicians at Oxford CBT are Cognitive Behavioural Therapists or Psychologists, offering evidence-based interventions and support for a range of issues for both young people and adults. If you would like to book an appointment you can do so on our online booking portal. If you have a question please get in touch via our online contact form or call us on 01865 920077.