10 Signs Your Health Anxiety Is Becoming A Serious Problem & What To Do About It
"You're such a hypochondriac!" is a refrain most sufferers of health anxiety can hear ringing in their ears. Pop culture representation of the condition frequently minimises its severity: from Melissa McCarthy's Sookie in Gilmore Girls to Rob Lowe's hyper-fit Chris in Parks and Recreation, a character's preoccupation with their health is often used as comic fodder. But health anxiety can be a debilitating, acutely distressing medical condition, one that can dominate a sufferer's thoughts and restrict their day-to-day activities. So how can you tell if your health anxiety is becoming serious?
Health anxiety is not an uncommon affliction: a study by the National Institute for Health Research, the Guardian reports, estimated that "at least one in five people attending hospital outpatient appointments suffers from health anxiety, although only one in 10 are ever diagnosed." A BBC report on the same study found that physical symptoms brought on by anxiety, like persistent headaches and chest pains, were often "mistaken for those of a physical illness," compounding the sufferers' distress.
Reassuringly, however, treatment for health anxiety — including cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT — has been found to be successful. The National Institute for Health Research study found that patients treated with CBT experienced benefits up to five years later, according to the BBC. The NHS also suggests certain self-care practices or anxiety medication might be beneficial. Concerned you might be suffering? Read on for common symptoms, and what to do next.
1. It's All You Think About
Few people could claim they've never worried about their health, but if it's an incessant source of anxiety for you, to the extent that it negatively impacts upon your life, you might be suffering from health anxiety. According to charity Anxiety UK, two diagnostic criteria that might indicate a problem are, "have you experienced a preoccupation with having a serious illness due to bodily symptoms that has been ongoing for at least six months?" and "have you felt distressed due to this preoccupation?" If the answer is yes, you might need some extra help.
2. You Frequently Seek Out Reassurance
Another health anxiety indicator is the continual need to seek reassurance that you're not ill, according to Houston OCD Program, whether from the people around you or from a medical professional. Unfortunately, asking for reassurance won't help in the long run. It's easy to doubt the explanation someone offers you; what's more, seeking reassurance can become a compulsion. If you find yourself consistently needing confirmation that you're not ill, it's worth speaking to your GP about the anxiety-tackling resources available to you.
3. You're Always Googling Potential Illnesses
Diagnosing yourself with the most devastating and obscure illnesses after an irresistible Google is so common that it's reached meme status, but for those dealing with health anxiety, it can actually be a source of severe distress. It's even been given its own title: cyberchondria, as the BBC reports. If your search history is dominated by questions about your health, it might be worth seeking professional support to tackle your health anxiety.
4. It's Taking Over Your Life
It might sound a bit dramatic, but Anxiety UK advise that if your concern about your health "impacts negatively on all areas of your life" — your relationships, your job, your hobbies — then you might have health anxiety. It might cause you to skip work because you're afraid you're ill, for example, or cause you to cancel plans with your friends. If that's the case, it's worth speaking to a doctor or therapist.
5. You Don't Believe Your Doctor
As mentioned above, there's always a way to feel dissatisfied with the reassurance someone gives you. Your mum's not a medical professional, so you turn to a doctor; but they're not a specialist in the disease you're afraid you're suffering from, you worry, or they might have missed a crucial symptom, or they might have had a bad night's sleep last night and are only semi-conscious throughout your consultation. The Mayo Clinic suggests that if you're convinced you're ill even after the all-clear from a doctor, it might be a sign you're struggling with health anxiety.
6. Or You Won't Go To The Doctor At All
While some sufferers of health anxiety might make frequent visits to the doctor, others might refuse to attend altogether. The Mayo Clinic lists "avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness." Say you've got an ear infection, or you've got a regular health check-up coming up: have you ever been reluctant to go, in case they tell you you've got something much more serious? That might be an indication of health anxiety.
7. You're Constantly Checking For Symptoms
According to the NHS, you might be suffering from health anxiety if you're always on the hunt for symptoms, and you "frequently check your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain." To complicate matters, you might be mistaking the physical manifestations of anxiety — including chest pains and headaches, as the BBC reports — with indicators of a different illness. Which brings us to...
8. You've Got Physical Symptoms Of Anxiety
It doesn't end with headaches and chest pains — there are, in fact, a whole host of ways anxiety can impact your body. According to Mind, symptoms you could be experiencing include dizziness, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, an altered sex drive, sweating, pins and needles, and more. If you have those symptoms, it's worth visiting the doctor.
9. You Find Discussion Or Representation Of Illness Triggering
Another potential symptom of health anxiety, the NHS says, is "avoid[ing] anything to do with serious illness." You might find 24 Hours in A&E too panic-inducing to watch, for example, or struggle to read news coverage of a major illness. If representations of ill-health trigger an anxious response, it might be an indication of health anxiety.
10. You Avoid Activities That You Think Will Damage Your Health
Health anxiety sufferers may modify their lifestyle to avoid getting ill, or to treat an illness they haven't actually been diagnosed with. Maybe you're overzealous about disinfecting your kitchen, or you cut things from your diet that you're afraid you're intolerant to, or you avoid physical activities that you think could injure you or might worsen a perceived existing condition. The NHS suggests that if you "act as if you were ill" without being told by a medical professional that you are, you could be dealing with health anxiety.
So you've recognised yourself in some of these symptoms: what to do next? It's worth making an appointment with your GP if it's interfering with your daily life, the NHS advises, who might then refer you for therapy such as CBT, prescribe you anti-anxiety medication, or offer both in tandem.
For less severe cases, the NHS suggests several self-help methods, including keeping a record of "how often you check your body, ask people for reassurance, or look at health information" and attempting to decrease the frequency, distracting yourself with other activities, performing breathing and relaxation exercises, and challenging your intrusive anxious thoughts. And remind yourself: health anxiety is an illness, not a personality quirk, there is treatment available, and you deserve to access it.