A Healthy Approach to Dealing with Health Anxiety

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

Signs of Illness Anxiety Disorder

Do you worry that you may have a serious disease or may become seriously ill despite any real evidence to suggest this? Do you spend too much time researching symptoms, obtaining medical information, or seeking reassurance from doctors? 

If you have been excessively and irrationally preoccupied for at least six months about your physical health, and your fears interfere with your daily functioning, you might be suffering with illness anxiety disorder. You may be perceiving normal noise inside the body as a potential threat. In addition, you may be unable to control your obsessive health concerns despite repeated reassurance from doctors and a lack of diagnostic findings. Your somatic complaints can stem from an absence of symptoms, one symptom, or multiple symptoms, and your symptoms can change over time.

What Factors lead to Health Anxiety?

The cause of health anxiety is unknown. However, it is found to be more prevalent in people with the following factors:

  • a history of abuse or neglect
  • mental illness
  • life stressors 
  • other anxiety such as ocd, panic disorder, generalized anxiety 
  • illness or death in the family
  • prior illness
  • personality that tends toward negativity and paranoia 

What are Some Triggers?

The following are some triggers that can lead people into a negative spiral of health concerns:

  • reading about or seeing someone with a diagnosed illness 
  • experiencing actual physical symptoms that overlap with something you’ve read or heard about 
  • misinterpreting blood tests, X-rays or other medical information as something catastrophic 

Using a Team Approach

Since illness anxiety disorder features both psychological and medical illness, it is important for your mental health professional to coordinate care with your primary care physician. Medical doctors often find high anxiety patients difficult due to their excessive demands for their time, support and reassurance. A CBT therapist and medical provider can work together to structure the care so the patient has the support, empathy, and understanding necessary to form a trusting alliance with all members of the team. Time limits and markers will be set in order for the patient to not overuse medical services.

Threat Interpretation

A lump or being fatigued can be perceived as cancer, a headache or dizziness can be seen as a brain aneurysm, and a stomach ache can be viewed as an ulcer. The constant internet searches, body scans, and doctor appointments take control over you.

When you struggle with health anxiety, your mind views your body as a threat despite any real evidence of illness. Your sympathetic nervous system over-activates and your body  more easily triggers physical symptoms and sensations. This, in turn, can cause undue stress on your body and mind, thus strengthening the threat interpretation. 

How to Manage Health Anxiety

Health anxiety, like all anxiety disorders, can be quite challenging to resolve initially on your own. This is a complex issue that often stems from a variety of factors. It can be difficult to differentiate between a real health concern and one fabricated by your own worries. Fortunately, there are effective methods to reduce the distressing nature of these obsessions and to curb the reactions to them. 

It can be very beneficial to seek out a mental health professional who specializes in health anxiety. Cognitive behavior therapy can help guide you in this practice. Some methods to manage illness concern include:

  • Becoming mindful of the obsessive worry

Identifying distorted thoughts, logging the cognitions in a thought record, and reframing the distorted thinking to a more reasonable explanation are very helpful methods in dealing with illness worries.  

  • Making healthy lifestyle choices

Healthy lifestyle choices such as a clean diet, regular exercise, and routine sleep patterns can diminish short and long-term anxiety. Additionally, deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help calm your mind and body.

  • Eliminating behaviors that trigger anxiety 

Reducing or eliminating caffeine, drugs, alcohol, and smoking can also have a significant positive impact on your physical and emotional wellbeing. 

In addition, refraining from doctor hopping and stopping yourself from seeking external reassurance about your health are important steps in staying in control of your reactions.  Alst, restricting the urge to check for bodily sensations or lumps and bumps is an essential component of healing emotionally.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

If you are struggling with illness anxiety disorder, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a highly effective treatment option. This therapy teaches you how to reframe your distorted thought patterns and modify your maladaptive behaviors in order to cope better with life’s stressors. It also incorporates mindfulness and meditation into your daily life to help you further manage your fear response and live a more peaceful existence. In addition, CBT will help you optimize your physical health to add to overall wellness. This is a holistic approach meant to have lasting results.

Learn more about the supportive treatment we offer. Contact us today at Advanced Behavioral Health to schedule an initial consultation. 

Dr. Suzanne Feinstein is an Instructor in Medical Psychology at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry/ NYSPI.

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