What can I do if I, or someone I know has Health Anxiety?
In days of yore (pre-readily available internet) there were always those labelled hypochondriacs who were overly regular visitors at the Doctors. However, this was nowhere near the percentage of the population, nor the intensity of energy sapping anxiety experienced by those with modern day Health Anxiety.
The fact is Health Anxiety is rapidly increasing in the population. What has changed is essentially natural worriers (as we used to call them), with a tendency towards obsessional catastrophic thinking now have easy access to copious fear inducing technicolour, in-depth medical information.
Online checking of ‘symptoms’ seems like a sensible thing to do if we feel, or see something physically unusual. However, in amongst the sensible advice (often directed at medical professionals), lurk the gory details of symptom lists, shocking images and bad-news stories pitched in all manner of tone of drama. Humans are suggestible beasts at the best of times however, this potentially fear inducing presentation easily feeds an obsessive person’s tendency tendency to fixate on worst case scenarios and run with them like a dog with a bone.
As a Therapist of 15 years and counting I can tell you (that in my clinic at least) Health Anxiety has well and truly knocked the previous long standing No.1 of Social Anxiety (aka social phobia) off the top slot to become the condition I receive most referrals from GP’s for. Interestingly, I almost exclusively receive referrals for Health Anxiety from Private GP practices. This is because the person displaying Health Anxiety is likely to be visiting a private GP practice to seek a second, third, or fourth opinion on their health status despite numerous verdicts, or medical tests coming back clear. Private GP practices offer services beyond the scope of your typical NHS General Practitioner and let's face it, who wouldn’t want a second opinion to placate a nagging concern?
It all gets a bit much though when an individual doesn’t receive relief, or reassurance when given the all clear. Or, that person feels better for a only few minutes before actively searching for evidence against the positive outcome, often thinking themselves into doubting all previous professional opinions and ending up not trusting Doctors at all. The thoughts Health Anxiety sufferers have told me drive their worry include, “So what that the test was clear last month? I’ve had numerous symptoms since then, so it probably NOW is cancer/Multiple Sclerosis/a muscle wasting condition/insert hideous tortuous terminal illness here…!”
Strictly speaking Health Anxiety is ‘the obsessional preoccupation with the idea that a person is experiencing the symptoms of a serious physical illness e.g. cancer, heart attack, HIV etc’. Those affected with this very specific obsession will commonly interpret normal bodily sensations such as digestion feelings, wind, nausea, chest tightening, tingling, pins and needles, fatigue, sweating, headaches etc. as severe, or terminal illness. In fact the anxiety generated by over-worrying does actually create similar symptoms of its own including gastrointestinal experiences such as wind, indigestion, butterflies, a knot in the stomach, changes of appetite, tingling, dizziness, fatigue, itches, twitches, altered sleep patterns, heart racing, day and night sweats, headaches and many more.
Anxiety UK lists the following Yes/No questions to ascertain if you’re affected by health anxiety.
During the last 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?
If you answered YES to most of these questions it is likely that you are affected by Health Anxiety. Anxiety UK strongly advises you seek further information and guidance from your GP who will be able to make a formal diagnosis. If your GP suggests you are suffering from Health Anxiety you may wish to consider speaking to an experienced therapist who can teach you to manage your thinking which will in turn help you to gain a healthy perspective and dramatically reduce, or eliminate your anxiety levels. It is truly astounding how much effort goes into feeling anxious. Just think what you could do with that energy if it were freed up for useful things!
So, the good news is you are not mad. You’re just not yet trained in how to think in a truly healthy way. With good mind management training you can be free from this very specific set of life limiting excessive worries and instead live a full and happy life with a natural healthy caution regarding your health. With help, you can stop doing this thing to yourself. If you are a sufferer I know you will be sick (pardon the pun!) of spending 80%+ of your day going over the same old worrisome black thoughts.
So get out there and find yourself a good therapist and get learning how to think well.
Alice Pinion BSc (Hon's) AdvDHyp