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Health anxiety signs, symptoms and how to get support

Convinced you have a serious medical condition? Here's how to spot health anxiety and get help.

illness anxiety disorder symptoms and treatment
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If you have a specific complaint or feel under the weather, it's perfectly normal to be concerned about your health. From persistent headaches to the common cold, when you can't shift a symptom it can be draining and worrisome, particularly in the wake of a global pandemic.

But while it's natural to feel anxious about your physical wellbeing every now and then, if worries about your health multiply and become all consuming, you may be suffering from illness anxiety disorder.

We spoke to Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan and author of CBD The Essential Guide to Health and Wellness (Simon & Schuster), about health anxiety symptoms, treatments and when to seek help:

What is health anxiety?

Medically known as illness anxiety disorder, health anxiety can be debilitating in its own right, leaving you unable to focus on the positives in your daily life. ‘Formerly known as hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder is characterised by excessive worry about health symptoms and a fear that you are becoming seriously ill,’ confirms Dr Brewer.

If you are suffering from health anxiety you may be overly concerned by a specific system, such as the digestive system, or your symptoms may flit around the body. While illness anxiety disorder tends not to be accompanied by real physical symptoms (rather, it’s the fear of them), those who do suffer with physical symptoms may be experiencing somatic symptom disorder.

illness anxiety disorder
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What is somatic symptom disorder?

Somatic symptom disorder is a condition that’s closely related to illness anxiety disorder, explains Dr Brewer. 'Someone focuses on particular symptoms, such as pain or dizziness, and how these affect them, rather than fearing they have a specific illness,’ she says.

The cause of these symptoms may or may not be traceable to a specific problem, but either way, the symptoms are real and can be highly distressing.

Health anxiety signs and symptoms

But how can you tell if you're suffering from health anxiety, or you're genuinely unwell? According to Dr Brewer health anxiety signs and symptoms include the following:

  • Focusing excessively on your health.
  • Worrying that normal physical sensations (such as those caused by stress) are a sign of a serious medical condition.
  • Multiple symptoms that may flit around the body.
  • Constantly searching the internet for possible diagnoses.
  • Talking about your health regularly and, when people ask how you are, giving full details of symptoms and possible illnesses.
  • Making regular GP appointments and requesting frequent medical tests.
  • Signs of anxiety, including a racing pulse, muscle twitching, difficulty sleeping and fatigue.

    ⚠️ If you do have any genuine symptoms alongside feelings of anxiety, don't be afraid to ask your GP for help.

    Health anxiety and COVID-19

        Could the global coronavirus pandemic exacerbate illness anxiety disorder, or prompt health anxiety in those who don’t normally suffer from the condition? Dr Brewer believes so.

        ‘Times of stress can bring on anxiety about health in some people,’ she says. ‘With the news about coronavirus constantly on our screens, it’s only natural to worry that a cough or sniffle could mean you are infected.’

        For someone with existing illness anxiety disorder, the coronavirus pandemic could be exceptionally traumatic. If you are struggling, your first port of call should be your GP.

        Health anxiety diagnosis

        If you recognise any health anxiety signs and symptoms and feel concerns about your health are starting to take over your life, it’s important to make an appointment with your GP to discuss this with them.

        ‘Your GP may diagnose illness anxiety disorder if a careful evaluation suggests you are physically healthy, but are worrying excessively about your health,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘In this case, they may refer you to a mental health professional for a psychological assessment.’

        Health anxiety treatment and self help tips

        The following treatments and self-help tips can help lessen your health anxiety:

        1. Cognitive behavioural therapy

          Formal treatment for illness anxiety disorder is available in the form of psychological therapies. ‘Psychological treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps you view symptoms in a different way and changes how you respond,’ explains Dr Brewer. ‘In some cases, antidepressants may be recommended, to help normalise brain chemistry and reduce anxiety.’

          2. Practise mindfulness

          Mindfulness involves focusing your attention on the present moment. The next time you notice worries about your health arise, pause for a moment and notice your surroundings: what can you see and hear? What can you touch and smell? Use your senses to ground yourself. This practice can help to calm your mind and stop the spiral of anxious thoughts.

          3. Focus on your breath

          In the same way that focusing on your surroundings can help you feel grounded, so too can concentrating on the gentle rhythm of your breath. It can create a sense of peace and calm within the mind. Focus on inhaling slowly, then exhaling deeply for a count of 10.

          4. Keep a diary

          Journalling your thoughts and fears can be cathartic, and can also help you notice patterns in your thinking. Keep a note of your thoughts and feelings. Are they rational? Make a note of how often you check for signs of illness or search online for health issues. By noticing the habit, you can consciously start to reduce the time you spend doing these things.

          5. Try physical exercise

          If the idea of running or hitting the gym turns you cold, a simple 30-minute walk can work wonders for your anxiety levels. ‘Physical exercise helps to burn off the effects of stress hormones,’ says Dr Brewer. Exercise also helps to generate endorphins – the feel-good hormone – in your body, making you feel happier, more resilient and better able to cope.

          6. Consider herbal supplements

          Some herbal supplements can help to lessen anxiety. ‘Cannabidiol (CBD) can help to reduce anxiety through effects on the body's own endocannabinoid system,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘It can help to reduce overanxious thoughts, muscle tension and restlessness, as well as helping you sleep better. The key is to buy from a reputable manufacturer and start slowly. Also, if you are taking any other medication, check with your doctor first, as interactions can occur.’

          Health anxiety help and support

          If health anxiety is starting to impact your life, your first port of call should be your GP. For further help, check out the following organisations:

          • Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
          • BABCP: help finding an accredited CBT therapist here.
          • The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
          • Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
          • CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.

            Last updated: 16-07-2021

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