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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
The concept of “health anxiety” is garnering a lot of attention lately — and for good reason. It seems appropriate to worry if you’re sick or getting sick, especially when your health could impact those around you.
But when does healthy caution become excessive?
Health anxiety is something that can affect every element of your life, because your health affects everything from your finances to your relationships. But when the anxiety becomes the main source of conflict, it also becomes the main health condition in need of treatment
Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder with several names. You might have heard it referred to as “illness anxiety disorder” or, perhaps most commonly, “hypochondriasis.” These terms all mean the same thing: a fear or anxiety about having or developing a serious, undiagnosed medical condition.
Symptoms of illness anxiety include feeling regular, chronic fear about something affecting your health, and continuing to feel that worry despite laboratory tests, physicals and other exams.
When you’re suffering from health anxiety, you’re uncomfortable with the idea of normal bodily sensations and changes. Sudden and unexplained physical sensations — aches, pains, gastrointestinal issues or even coughs — create fear and uncertainty.
People with health anxiety are often suspicious of the competence of their healthcare providers, and envision terrible consequences for missed diagnoses.
In some cases, patients with illness anxiety disorder will frequently check on their own for any signs or symptoms that something is wrong, which may include looking for hair loss, lesions, spots and other visual cues of some underlying health condition.
This all causes the individual a lot of stress and anxiety, the effects of which are often difficult or impossible to mitigate.
Why some people suffer from health anxiety is a bit of mystery, and there’s no one central cause or predictive element for who will and won’t develop these anxieties.
That said, there are plenty of risk factors and potential triggers that we can pinpoint to show who may be at an increased risk of developing health anxiety.
One of the most common causes of health anxiety is simply being born into a family where health anxieties are frequently discussed. People who grow up around these behaviors and ways of thinking become disproportionately concerned themselves, which can begin to affect them more severely as they age.
Another reason people might develop illness anxiety is if they, a friend or family member experienced serious medical issues or suffered severe illness during childhood.
If you have another form of anxiety, like generalized anxiety, you’re also at a higher risk of developing health anxiety.
Lastly, one final correlation is that people who spend excessive amounts of time reading or viewing health materials (we’re looking at you, person who’s always on WebMD) they may develop health anxiety as a result.
Whether health anxiety is a healthy condition or not is a fair question — with a complex answer.
Sure, being anxious about your health can in some cases lead to a diagnosis of (and cure for) a serious condition. There are plenty of anecdotes on the Internet of individuals who were persistent in bringing their complaints to healthcare professional after healthcare professional until someone finally noticed a rare condition and got them treatment.
By the same token, that’s not to say that over-worrying about your health to the point of deteriorating your mental health is good. Like, at all.
Instead, people with health anxiety are more likely to cause problems with their anxiety. Obsessive and debilitating focus on health fears is not healthy, and any anxiety that begins to affect your quality of life with a preoccupation is not — in any way, shape or form — healthy.
Preventing health anxiety from taking over your life isn’t a simple achievement, because for people beginning to struggle with overwhelming fears of anxieties about their health, it can be hard to define the line between what is right and what isn’t.
The best approach to preventing or dealing with health anxiety is to simultaneously maintain your physical and mental health.
Generally, your mental health and your risk for anxiety disorder can be guarded by certain protective factors. These include things like effective coping tools and mechanisms, social support and health habits like regular physical activity.
But when anxiety becomes too much to handle, there are two reliable ways to address any form of anxiety: therapy and medication.
While some people may be reluctant to seek therapy, it’s one of the most effective ways to cope with anxiety. Therapy for anxiety is becoming more and more common these days, whereas a generation ago it was engulfed in stigma.
CBT is actually a system of treatment whereby people with various mental disorders like depression and anxiety learn how to identify disordered patterns of thinking (in this case, associating each and every bodily abnormality with grave medical conditions), and then learn how to regulate and ultimately control them.
Mental health services are also becoming more and more accessible, making taking that first step easier than ever.
Alongside therapy, your mental health provider may also recommend medication to support your health anxiety treatment.
The most commonly prescribed medication for anxiety is antidepressants. These medications are primarily designed for use in people suffering from depression, but they’ve been shown to offer significant benefits to people suffering from other mood disorders like anxiety.
You are most likely to be offered selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs at first. They’ve become the go-to solution for most people with mood disorders because they offer comparably few side effects and significantly higher effectiveness than other medications in the space.
If SSRIs are ineffective or create too many adverse effects for you, you may be offered another form of antidepressant instead.
A little anxiety over the state of your health can be a good thing. But excessive anxiety can take its own toll on your body, and mental illness can have its own chronic effects.
If you're feeling impaired, hindered or otherwise burdened by an increase in health anxiety in your daily life, it's time to seek help.
Life is full of things to worry about — worry about missing out on those instead.