Answer these questions honestly – Are you always worried about your health? Do you spend hours on the Internet scanning for health information? Even when a medical test comes back negative, do you still question the result believing something is wrong?
If you answered yes to at least one of the questions, you may be suffering from a condition called health anxiety disorder. This condition causes healthy people to worry that they are sick even when they have no symptoms, or maybe only minor symptoms such as a scratchy throat. Anyone who obsesses over the fear of developing a dangerous health problem or already has one, most likely has this condition. It’s one thing to have health concerns but when it turns into a full blown preoccupation interfering with your life, that’s when it’s crossed into an area needing to be addressed.
Health anxiety is also known by other names – often referred to as hypochondria, other names used are somatization disorder or illness anxiety disorder. Each is related and each can cause an unhealthy fear of something being terribly wrong with your body.
Because of this fear and fixation on something being wrong with their health, it can lead to seeking out unnecessary testing, wasting hours at the doctor’s office, and spending days consumed by worry.
It is estimated that around 4% to 5% of the population has some form of health anxiety. But many experts believe this number is underreported and the true percentage of people with health anxiety could be as high as 12% or even twice that number. Both men and women appear to be affected equally by this condition.
All of us have health worries but not necessarily health anxiety
Very few if any of us have gone through life without some worry or concern over our health. It’s normal to think about your health from time to time. Anytime you have a pain somewhere in your body or you notice a rash that wasn’t there the day before, can make anyone obsess over what may be wrong.
It’s when that obsession takes over our life making it difficult to think about much else, that when it has likely turned into health anxiety.
Signs of health anxiety
Here are some telltale signs someone may have health anxiety:
- You have no symptoms but still fear that you are sick
- When a doctor reassures you that you don’t have an illness or a test shows you’re healthy, it doesn’t relieve your nervousness.
- You find yourself constantly seeking health information online
- If you read a news story about a disease, you start worrying that you have it
- Your worries about your health are interfering with your life, family, work, or hobbies and activities
Eventually, most doctors can spot someone with health anxiety as they tend to have a pattern of behavior indicating it. These are people who are calling their physician several times a week or are making an appointment with them at least every three months for health problems they fear they have but usually do not.
How is health anxiety treated?
The good news about health anxiety, it’s treatable. Anxiety disorders, in general, are vastly undertreated as only 37% of people with them receive treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Part of the problem is the stigma associated with having anxiety. People with health anxiety truly believe they are sick when the truth is the symptoms are related to their anxiety. For someone with health anxiety, it does not help to tell them their symptoms are not real or it’s all in their heads. Instead, constructively discuss how their excessive worrying is affecting their life, taking away enjoyment and time spent with family and friends.
For anyone suspecting they have health anxiety and desires to conquer the battle of feeling fearful of every little ache or pain they have, here are important steps to take to get your life back:
- First, focus on what you are losing in life. Is it worth the time and energy it takes sitting in a doctor’s office, emergency room or sitting in front of your computer searching for health advice? Or would you rather spend that time and energy doing something you love.
- Be evaluated by a mental health professional. Your primary care doctor can provide a referral.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective approach for treating health anxiety and is often a first-choice treatment option. This therapy addresses identifying and understanding how you think about your health and focuses on developing a different mindset about health.
- It is common for people with health anxiety to have other mental health conditions such as depression, other types of anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder. If so, medications and psychotherapy in the form of talk therapy can help you manage and move on from these worries.
Dr. David Samadi is the Director of Men’s Health and Urologic Oncology at St. Francis Hospital in Long Island. He’s a renowned and highly successful board certified Urologic Oncologist Expert and Robotic Surgeon in New York City, regarded as one of the leading prostate surgeons in the U.S., with a vast expertise in prostate cancer treatment and Robotic-Assisted Laparoscopic Prostatectomy. Visit Dr. Samadi’s websites at robotic oncology and prostate cancer 911.