What Is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is an extended preoccupation or excessive concern for one’s health. The person experiencing health anxiety believes that a serious illness is imminent and tends to focus much attention on possible symptoms of the perceived illness. People with health anxiety frequently misinterpret physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. Nausea, sweating, heart palpitations etc.) as signs of an impending illness.

Worrying excessively about health can lead to significant distress for the person and consequently, the person may feel compelled to relieve this distress through seeking reassurance from family or health care workers, or by checking books, magazines and internet sites. Although it can seem reasonable to attain reassurance from such sources, however, for people with health anxiety, reassurance seeking can be persistent and not offer actual relief from symptoms. Continued checking of and focus on perceived symptoms can reinforce health worry and contribute to an increase in the experience of physical symptoms. In some cases, the person may visit several doctors and request more in-depth examination of symptoms. If no medical reason for symptoms is found, the person may question the expertise of the doctor.

Many somatizers (those who experience symptoms and attribute them to physical illness, and may seek extensive and often ineffective medical help for them) can be quite resistant to the idea that a psychological intervention could be relevant to or helpful for their problems. Many are convinced that their problems have nothing to do with stress or psychological factors and that they are suffering from a disease that either has not been diagnosed or the nature of which is unknown to medical science.

If that’s you, you could be correct. An individual’s willingness to meet once with me is not tantamount to a commitment to undergo psychotherapy.

My attitude toward you is empathic and interested. We begin by asking you about your physical symptoms and about the impact those symptoms have on your life. Your beliefs about your physical symptoms and past coping techniques are also explored. Through discussion and through- out the entire treatment, I will acknowledge the physical symptoms and the distress associated with them.

If you attribute your symptoms to an unknown biological cause or to aspects of the physical environment, I would suggest that even if symptoms are caused by some organic pathology or by environmental agents, stress is likely to exacerbate them.

As part of a cognitive Behaviour psychological treatment approach, levels of problematic symptoms will also be monitored over time. Typically, you will be asked to examine and question the utility of problematic thoughts, which maintain the symptoms of health anxiety. A number of useful strategies will be taught, in order to approach problematic thoughts in more helpful ways. Another area of intervention involves encouraging you to become more aware of the vicious circle of health preoccupation, focus on symptoms and reassurance-seeking.