"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.