What Is Health Anxiety? Is It Different Than Hypochondria?
Health anxiety (also called illness anxiety) centers around excessive worry about being — or becoming — seriously ill, even when you’re not experiencing any physical symptoms. This type of anxiety can be very disruptive to daily life. It’s also relatively common, affecting approximately 3-6% of people (according to the DSM-5-TR). Health anxiety used to be called hypochondria or hypochondriasis, but these terms are now outdated.
The most common fears in health anxiety focus on severe illnesses or conditions. Many people with health anxiety worry about developing cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), ALS, HIV, or dementia. In contrast, few people with health anxiety are anxious about developing mild or common conditions such as the common cold, dry skin, or heartburn. (The fear of exposure to germs is often part of a different condition.)
Health anxiety also often causes you to misinterpret sensations in your body as signs of something dangerous. For example, you may worry that the sensations from normal bodily functions, like digestion or sweating, are actually signs of an undiagnosed or developing serious illness. The same can happen with common but uncomfortable ailments, such as a headache.
How Do I Know If I Have Health Anxiety?
Here are some symptoms and signs you might be experiencing health anxiety:
- Feeling highly anxious about and preoccupied with your health in general
- Excessive preoccupation with having or developing a serious illness or condition
- Worrying that you have a disease after learning or hearing about it
- Repeatedly taking your blood pressure or temperature, or other means of “monitoring” your bodily functions (either visually or by feeling)
- Repeatedly researching diseases and symptoms on the Internet
- Seeing doctors more frequently than your peers
- Avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness
- Getting frequent testing or medical imaging
- Frequently discussing your fears with loved ones and asking for reassurance
- Finding little to no relief from doctors telling you that you don’t have an illness, or test results showing you’re healthy
- Difficulty functioning in other areas of your life due to health anxiety
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Can Help
Health anxiety can exist alongside medical conditions that require treatment. So, it’s important to get an appropriate medical evaluation for any concerning symptoms you have. However, if a medical evaluation doesn’t identify any illnesses or conditions you need to treat, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective psychological treatment for health anxiety.
CBT offers you many techniques that are effective at reducing general anxiety, and these also work for health-related anxiety. These include:
- Learning about health anxiety and increasing your awareness
- Having a better understanding of the condition makes it easier to see when and how it’s impacting you. This increased awareness makes it easier to put the helpful techniques described below into practice.
- Practicing different self-talk and changing how you think
- A CBT therapist will help you identify and change unhelpful patterns in your thinking that keep you anxious. For example, overestimating the likelihood of having a severe illness is a common problem for people with health anxiety.
- Reducing reassurance-seeking and other safety behaviors
- Reducing and eliminating these behaviors helps break the cycle that keeps health anxiety going over time. For example, a CBT therapist will teach you how to reduce the time you spend researching diseases and symptoms on the Internet and scanning and checking your body for signs of illness
- Reducing avoidance and resuming avoided activities
- Avoidance is a natural reaction to anything that causes anxiety. CBT teaches you how to tolerate feelings of anxiety without avoiding the situations that cause them. This can help you get important medical care you’ve been avoiding, or get back to other healthy activities you stopped doing for fear of how they may negatively impact your health.
CBT can help you break free from the cycles of worry and reassurance-seeking that make health anxiety so difficult to live with. It can help you find relief, spend less time feeling anxious about your health, and get back into participating in life more fully.
Research has shown that medication can be helpful in treating anxiety, and can be almost as helpful as or even equally as helpful as CBT. One commonly prescribed type of medication for anxiety is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Lexapro, Zoloft, Prozac, and Celexa, among others. Benzodiazepines are another type of medication prescribed for anxiety, which are fast acting but can be habit-forming. These include medications like Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin. Because they are fast-acting and potentially habit-forming, they are not good for managing anxiety in the long term.
While medication treatment can be helpful, the benefits of these medications are lost when you stop taking them. The skills you learn in CBT, however, will stay with you and help for a long time.
Finding CBT for Health Anxiety
If you’re interested in CBT for health anxiety or illness anxiety disorder, here in New York City please contact us. We also offer teletherapy to people throughout New York State, as well as New Jersey, Vermont, and Florida.