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What do we mean by Health Anxiety?

Most of us worry about our health from time to time but generally, these worries don’t last very long and don’t interfere with our lives. Unfortunately, for some of us, the worries don’t disappear so easily and can become very distressing. Usually, these people are worried that they have a serious illness, and this worry persists even when their doctors have told them otherwise. Worrying like this can cause intense anxiety, feelings of panic, and a feeling that the worry is ‘taking over my life’.

You may have heard the term ‘hypochondriac’ used to describe people who are always worrying that they have something wrong with them or that they have a serious medical condition when they don’t. Many people believe that ‘hypochondriacs’ don’t have any real symptoms, and in fact, the problem is ‘all in the mind’. However, healthcare workers now know that the vast majority of people with health anxiety do have real physical symptoms.

Health anxiety, or Hypochondriasis, is a preoccupation with a fear that you have a serious disease. Health anxiety affects many people across the world. A large number of people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have health anxiety, and it's very difficult to distinguish the two. People suffering from it misinterpret normal bodily sensations as evidence of illness, compulsively checking their bodies and seeking constant medical reassurance.

You may have thoughts or worries such as:

  • A sore on my skin means I have skin cancer
  • This headache is a sign I might have a brain tumour
  • My heart fluttering is a sign I have heart disease or I’m having a heart attack
  • Difficulty swallowing is a sign of throat cancer

There are many other kinds of thoughts or worries that bother people with health anxiety. Usually, there is concern about a specific physical symptom(s) or sensation(s) and that this symptom is a sign of a very serious health problem.

It’s common to be preoccupied with physical symptoms and to be repeatedly checking the body for any physical changes or signs of illness. You may visit health professionals more frequently or ask to see different doctors for a second or third opinion. Alternatively, some people avoid consulting their doctors because they’re frightened that a medical examination will confirm their worst fears.

If you have health anxiety you may find yourself mentioning your symptoms to family and friends and asking them what they think about your health, in the hope that they’ll tell you everything is all right.

Some people are so concerned about the possibility of being ill that they read a lot about illnesses and check out their symptoms in medical encyclopaedias, in magazine articles, or on the internet. Internet search engines are increasingly used as a source of health information. When people search for such information, they are usually hoping that they will be reassured that they do not have a life-threatening illness and will have no need to worry.