Health Anxiety

condition health

What is it?

Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder that is often housed within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum of disorders. Those affected by health anxiety have an obsessional preoccupation with the idea or the thought that they are currently (or will be) experiencing a physical illness. The most common health anxieties tend to centre on conditions such as cancer, HIV, AIDs, etc. However, the person experiencing health anxiety or illness phobia may fixate on any type of illness. This condition is known as health anxiety, illness phobia/illness anxiety or hypochondriasis.

Those who are affected by health anxiety/illness phobia are convinced that harmless physical symptoms are indicators of serious disease or severe medical conditions. For example, if a person experiencing health anxiety or illness phobia feels that their chest is getting tight, they may believe that they are having a heart attack. Those with health anxiety frequently misinterpret physical symptoms of anxiety as a sign of an impending physical health problem.

What are the symptoms?

One of the main symptoms of health anxiety is that the individual may scan their body for signs that they are developing a physical illness. For example, a person experiencing health anxiety may interpret their headache as a brain tumour. Some people affected by this disorder may also link non physical problems to having a serious illness. An example of this is may be someone who forgets where they have put their phone or their house keys believing that this means that they have Alzheimer’s disease.

Some individuals who experience this type of anxiety disorder are so convinced that they have a certain physical illness, that all of their focus will be placed on obtaining a diagnosis. They will go to as many doctors as they can and if they do not receive confirmation of a diagnosis, they may continue to seek second, third and fourth opinions from other doctors. In such instances, many different tests (such as MRI, echocardiograms and in some cases even exploratory surgery) are requested by the person experiencing the health anxiety or illness phobia. Unfortunately, these tests are often not enough to convince them that they are not physically ill and can therefore be taken time and time again. Often, a lack of diagnosis is attributed to poor medical care or an under qualified doctor. It is important to remember that repeated visits and consultations with health care professionals are due to the fact the sufferer fully believes that they are experiencing a physical illness, rather than due to attention seeking behaviours. The medical profession often refer to the symptoms experienced by sufferers of health anxiety as “medically unexplained symptoms”.

Many people experiencing health anxiety or illness phobia will spend a large amount of their time carrying out excessive checking behaviours where they will look for marks, lumps, sores and rashes on their body which may indicate the onset of a physical illness. These checking behaviours also include asking friends and family members to assist them in checking. The anxiety experienced around the possibility that they may find something to indicate illness or around the idea that they may catch a particular illness can lead to high levels of anxiety. This in turn can increase physical symptoms of anxiety (such as an increased heart rate, chest pain or tightness in the chest, dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, dry mouth or sweating). Upon noticing this increase in physical symptoms, the sufferer’s idea that they are experiencing a physical illness is reinforced.

Media campaigns on specific physical illnesses can also cause problems for people experiencing health and illness anxiety. Often, watching programmes relating to physical illness or reading about specific conditions may lead those affected to feel that they have experienced symptoms of that specific condition.

An individual can exhibit symptoms of health anxiety or illness phobia for long periods of time or may be symptom free for equal amounts of time. Conversely, people affected by health and illness anxiety may refuse to go to the doctor or any other medical practitioners for fear that they will get the worst possible news (i.e. that their suspicion of having a physical medical disorder will be confirmed). Therefore, instead of becoming overly focused on the feared illness, they will avoid any reminders relating to symptoms of the illness and will stay away from people who may be ill. Additionally, they may try to avoid any places where there are likely to be people who are ill (such as hospitals and doctors surgeries). They may fear that any contact with people experiencing physical illness will cause them to catch that illness (regardless of whether or not the illness that they are focusing on is contagious).

Some individuals who are affected by health anxiety may not tell anyone about their fears as they are convinced that they will not be taken seriously.

Health anxiety and illness phobia is found to occur equally in both men and women and can develop at any age.

Although the causes of health and illness anxiety are not always easily identified, there are certain factors which may trigger the disorder:

  • Having a serious illness as a child.
  • Having a close family member or friend with a serious illness.
  • The death of a close relative/friend.
  • Being affected by an anxiety disorder.
  • Having a belief that being “healthy” means that you do not experience any physical symptoms or sensations.
  • Having close family members who themselves have health anxiety.

Health Anxiety fact sheet

DIY self diagnosis

If you can answer YES to most of the questions it is likely that you are affected by health anxiety.

During the past 6 months:

  • Have you experienced a preoccupation with having a serious illness due to bodily symptoms that has been ongoing for at least six months?
  • Have you felt distressed due to this preoccupation?
  • Have you found that this preoccupation impacts negatively on all areas of life including, family life, social life and work?
  • Have you felt that you have needed to carry out constant self examination and self diagnosis?
  • Have you experienced disbelief over a diagnosis from a doctor or felt that you are unconvinced by your doctor’s reassurances that you are fine?
  • Do you constantly need reassurance from doctors, family and friends that you are fine, even if you don’t really believe what you are being told?

Anxiety UK strongly advises that people seek further information and guidance from their GP who will be able to make a formal diagnosis.

How we can help

Anxiety UK is a user-led charity with more than forty years experience in supporting those living with anxiety. By becoming a member of Anxiety UK, you will have access to a range of benefits, including:

  • Access to reduced cost therapy within two weeks of submitting your therapy request
  • Free access to Headspace, worth £95
  • Access to our infoline, email, text and live chat services (available Monday-Friday, 9:30 am – 5:30 pm) staffed by volunteers with personal experience of anxiety
  • Receipt of four issues of Anxious Times, our quarterly members” magazine
  • Access to the members only section of our website, featuring regular support surgeries facilitated by anxiety experts
  • Access to specialist helplines, including the psychiatric pharmacy helpline and the psychology information helpline

And many, many other benefits that will help you manage your anxiety long term. To become a member of Anxiety UK click here or ring 08444 775 774 today.

Want to know more?

The Anxiety UK site has information on a range of resources to provide more detailed information and help.

Overcoming Health Anxiety

Overcoming Health Anxiety is an excellent self help resource based on cognitive behavioural therapy. It provides information on a range of techniques to look at the thoughts and behaviours that keep health anxiety going. You can purchase this book from the Anxiety UK shop by clicking here.


tackling health anxiety

New book: Tackling Health Anxiety: A CBT Handbook

By Dr Helen Tyrer

This straightforward book explains how to deliver cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) for health anxiety in ordinary practice. Health anxiety is very common but it is often undetected, especially in medical settings where people are constantly looking for evidence of physical disease. It covers recognising health anxiety, separating the problems of anxiety from those of physical illness, engaging patients and sensitively introducing therapy.

All clinicians – from nurses working in general practice, to consultant physicians – will recognise the scenarios Dr Tyrer uses to illustrate her practical approach to alleviating the distress felt by so many patients. All clinicians will value the time they can save by tackling their patients’ health anxiety.

(Published by RCPsych Publications in July 2013, paperback, 150 pages, ISBN 978-1-908020-90-1, price £18)

Call Book Sales on 020 3701 2551 or read more information and buy online. There is also a free sample chapter available.

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