Are you spending more time than you’d like looking up symptoms on WebMD? We all worry about our health from time to time and the Covid pandemic has only highlighted the importance of staying healthy. Illness anxiety or health anxiety, however you describe it, goes above and beyond ordinary concern about your health and can be both mentally exhausting and draining on close relationships. It often develops after the loss of a loved one and can worsen over time, regardless of whether you are in good physical health or you experience diagnosed health problems. If your health anxiety is impacting your day-to-day life, your relationships, your mood, or your ability to enjoy daily life, it’s likely time to talk to a mental health professional about it and take action.
If you are experiencing a level of health and illness anxiety or worry about your health that feels unmanageable, we can help. We offer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for individuals looking to break the pattern of obsessive thinking using evidence-based techniques. CBT focuses on specific tools to interrupt the cycle of worry about your health, allowing you to spend more time engaging in other parts of your life!
Often times, illness anxiety can begin as a way of managing grief. For some, your mind grapples with why someone’s health issues weren’t caught earlier so they could have been treated and saved. This focus on trying to foresee and prevent illness can lead to the belief that hyper focusing on your body can help you to catch illness before it escalates.
For others, we struggle to process our feelings about how life can change so drastically from one moment to the next. Whether it’s the result of an accident or an unexpected diagnosis, sudden changes to our health can be jarring. If you find yourself dwelling on how it would feel to experience a sudden change in your physical health, it can lead to illness anxiety over time.
Ironically, illness anxiety often develops from our experiences with the health of OTHER people such as friends, family members, or even strangers such as a celebrity. Here are a few of the experiences that commonly trigger the onset of illness anxiety:
These kind of experiences can affect you even more if you are close to the person or around them during their diagnosis, treatment, or death. As a result. some risk factors include caretaking for a loved one during a serious or terminal illness or disability, illness of a family member during your childhood, and having parents who worried too much about their own health or yours when you were growing up.
People with illness anxiety often recognize that their health-related fears are excessive. For example, you might recognize that your worry that every headache is a possible brain tumor, is excessive. You might be more afraid, however, that if you stop worrying about your headaches, that you could dismiss real signs and symptoms of a brain tumor. And so the worrying continues.
Most people with illness and health anxiety share common coping behaviors. These include:
For most people with illness anxiety, these behaviors become a part of daily life. This goes above and beyond the occasional doctor’s appointment. If you rely on reassurance to put your mind at ease, you might notice your anxiety goes down temporarily, only to have it flare back up after just a little while.
Unfortunately, these coping behaviors don’t seem to do much for putting your health fears to rest and can only make it worse over time. In some ways illness anxiety can actually have a negative effect on your health. The more time you spend engaged in these behaviors, typically the less time you might spend making healthy lifestyle changes to support your long-term health (i.e. regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and good sleep hygiene). Lastly, due to the anxiety of discussing medical topics, some people with illness anxiety will avoid routine medical screenings out of fear that the doctors may actually find something which can increase the odds of serious medical issues going undetected.
Most commonly feared illnesses:
Illness anxiety can place a heavy burden on you and your family such as: