What is Health Anxiety and How Can CBT Help?

We have recently lived through a global pandemic. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that I’ve noticed more and more people in my clinic struggling with health anxiety. If not treated properly and promptly, health anxiety, like all mental health conditions, can greatly impact your lifestyle and well-being.

Health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder or hypochondria, is a condition in which a person becomes excessively worried about having a serious illness, despite having no or only mild symptoms. This excessive worry can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life.

Symptoms of health anxiety may include frequent checking of the body for signs of illness, seeking reassurance from others about one’s health, constantly researching health conditions online, and avoiding medical procedures due to fear of illness.

While everyone worries about their health from time to time, for people with health anxiety, their worries and fears become all-consuming and can interfere with their ability to enjoy life.

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is characterised by constant worry about your health. This might manifest as:

* Frequently checking your body for signs of illness

* Always asking people for reassurance that you’re not ill

* Worrying your doctor or medical tests may have missed something

* Obsessively looking at health information on the internet or in the media

* Avoiding anything to do with a serious illness such as medical TV programmes

* Acting as if you are ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)

Health anxiety is distressing and can strike without warning and can be difficult to shake.

So, what can you do about it?

  1. Get a thorough medical checkup: If you’re experiencing symptoms that are causing you to worry, it’s important to see a doctor and get a thorough checkup. This can help to rule out any serious health conditions and provide reassurance.
  2. Seek therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be particularly helpful for people with health anxiety. This therapy helps individuals challenge their negative thoughts and beliefs and develop more positive and realistic ways of thinking.
  3. Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness meditation and other relaxation techniques can help reduce anxiety and stress, exacerbating health anxiety symptoms.
  4. Focus on self-care: Taking care of your physical and emotional health can help to reduce anxiety and improve overall well-being. Eat a healthy diet, exercise and sleep, and engage in activities you enjoy.

Shift Your Focus

A key part of CBT is identifying bad habits or thoughts and intentionally replacing them with thoughts or actions that better help you recover and enjoy life. By focusing on negative symptoms, you are reinforcing the condition and making it harder to obtain relief.

Where we put our spotlight of attention grows in our attention. In other words, if I focus on my temperature, the sensations of heat and cold will increase. If I focus on my heart rate, then I will notice every change. The antidote to this is to work on reducing the amount of attention you give to symptoms or health-related information. Start building a positive daily routine and gradually reduce the focus and time you give to your health worries.

Reduce Checking and Research Behaviours

Limit exposure to health-related information: While staying informed about health issues is important, excessive exposure to health-related information can fuel health anxiety. Try to limit your exposure to news stories and other information that may trigger your anxiety.

The more you check, the more you will want to check. Limit your relationship with Dr Google. You’ll often find the symptoms you’re searching for, but not in a comforting way. Is there someone who you respect who has a good relationship with their health? Try to model their thoughts, feelings and behaviour. What would they say to themselves or do in this situation?

Be Flexible

It’s important to increase flexibility in your thinking. What are the other possibilities that are non-threatening? For example, an increased temperature can be caused by higher blood pressure from worry or stress, heating, exertion, wearing too many layers or if you have eaten a lot. Practice coming up with other possibilities.

Tackle Your Anxiety

When we’ve been anxious, we have to work at relaxing and toning down our anxiety symptoms. It can feel uncomfortable when we’re worried or scared, but the more you put yourself in a calmer mindset, the easier it will become to access it. Try doing one thing every day to calm your mind and body.

Some Worry Is Normal

Remember, it’s normal to worry more about your own health when someone you love is unwell or has a health concern. If you have lost a loved one, you will become more aware of your own mortality and your health worries may increase for a time. Use the tips above to help you move through this period.

Recognise When Therapy Can Help

While many aspects of CBT therapy can be done in your home, there are times when symptoms are too severe to be tackled alone. There is no shame in reaching out for medical assistance. Anxiety is like any other illness – it is never your fault and it does not reflect poorly upon yourself if you have it.

It could be time to get help…

* If health anxiety is becoming an ongoing issue and people close to you think you need help

* When your anxiety is impacting your quality of life or relationships

* If you’re feeling distressed on a regular basis or experiencing high levels of anxiety

* If you’ve been constantly consumed by thoughts or worries about your health for over a month

* When you’re spending an hour or more a day checking your health or reading about health-related matters

* If you’re starting to feel depressed or hopeless or having any thoughts of self-harm

CBT has the best evidence base for treating health anxiety. You can access help through your GP, charities such as Anxiety UK or privately, ensuring your therapist is BABCP accredited.

Useful Links

Self-Help for Health Anxiety

How to Choose a CBT Therapist

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.