Health Anxiety

Health anxiety is a disorder. There are several disorders that are defined by excessive anxiety related to somatic symptoms or an illness or condition.

For adults with these disorders there is a preoccupation with one or more somatic symptoms or having or getting a serious illness or condition. Naturally occurring sensations are often misinterpreted as evidence for illness, and consequently the individual is easily alarmed about their health. This typically leads to excessive checking behaviours to ensure they aren’t sick, such as frequent visits to medical professionals and use of home devices (e.g. a blood pressure machine or thermometer), as well as persistent questioning of others to determine whether or not they are ill, and other behaviours. Alternatively, the person with health anxiety may avoid medical attention completely due to fear of what may be discovered. Even when the individual does have an illness or condition, the degree of worry and related checking behaviours are far more extreme and time consuming than would be expected given the situation. Although many people may worry about health and general wellness on occasion, for adults with health-related anxiety disorders this worry is excessive, ongoing, uncontrollable, physically draining, and significantly negatively impacts the quality of life of the person and their family and loved ones.

Fear or Fact Seeking: Chronic Medical Conditions and Worry

While adults with health anxiety disorders do not always have a medical condition, some do. If you have a chronic medical condition such as asthma, food allergies, diabetes, or other conditions, you can also have a health anxiety disorder. But how do you tell what is reasonable worry that can understandably occur with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts or other serious illnesses, versus whether you might have a health anxiety disorder? In order to make this determination it is recommended you seek an assessment by a medical or mental health professional. However, you can contribute to that assessment by starting to observe whether your behaviours are a result of fear or fact seeking. Adults with excessive anxiety about their medical condition are ruled by fear. Fear tells you not to go on a trip because your medical condition might flare up, or it convinces you to stay home sick from work because your coworker might not be able to help. Fear bosses you about on a daily basis even when others have provided information to calm your worry, many, many times, or have explained to you why your behaviours are unnecessary. This includes multiple visits to medical professionals who have all provided medical clearance to engage in a specific activity. In fact, you know fear is in charge when you seem to be asking for the same information repeatedly but you never quite feel satisfied. Fact seeking on the other hand allows an individual with a chronic condition to understand the dos and don’ts to managing and living with that condition. If this applies to you, you may have some worry about how to cope with your illness or condition, however, you have sought out relevant facts that make you feel confident you can cope and thrive. This can include identifying community members who will help when you need additional help (e.g. a friend who knows where your asthma inhaler is if you cannot reach it), and taking reasonable precautions outlined by your doctor to ensure your condition remains stable. As a result, you are able to engage in your daily life with minimal disruption and if you do experience small doses of worry, this creates minor interference.

Signs & Symptoms

  • What if my cold turns into pneumonia and I die?
  • I’ve had three headaches this year. I’m sure I have a brain tumor!
  • What if that pain means I have cancer?
  • I don’t think my doctor is qualified enough
  • No-one understands me
  • Irritability
  • Tired or fatigue
  • Muscle pains
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Anxiety/worry
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Avoiding going places or doing things for fear help may be hard to find
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or disturbed/interrupted sleep
  • Excessive body checking
  • Reassurance seeking
  • Researching illness and treatments
  • Work absenteeism (i.e. excessive missed days of work)

Common Situations or Affected Areas

  • Work absenteeism
  • Frequent trips to medical professionals
  • Inability to participate and enjoy recreational activities and activities due to trying to prevent exposure to perceived germs or illnesses
  • General decline in quality of life- less involved in activities, poor relationships, limited interests, time spent worrying
  • Unusual or overly focused interests- frequent research of medical illnesses and treatments, becoming an expert on identifying diseases, etc.

Source: Anxiety Canada