People suffering with Health anxiety develop an obsessional preoccupation with the idea that they have contracted a physical illness or will become ill in the future. Common examples of health anxieties include fixations on life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or HIV but may include a range of health concerns. Until recently the term hypochondriasis was widely used to describe health anxiety but, due to its pajorative overtones is now considered to be unhelpful in understanding the distressing symptoms experienced as a result of this disorder.
Health anxiety causes sufferers to become overly focused on bodily sensations and misinterpret them catastrophically as indicators of a serious disease or medical condition. Sensations felt in the chest, for example may be thought to signal the onset of a heart attack. Another example might be when areas of the body are given prolonged attention or checking resulting in a belief that cancer has been detected.
What keeps Health Anxiety going?
For most people fears about health are usually alleviated after a G.P examination gives the all-clear. However, health anxiety causes a state of chronic worry that can prompt an endless cycle of reasuranc seeking either from friends or family or by making repeat visits to the doctor. Other characteristics of the disorder include continual symptom checking and scouring the internet for details about illness, or joining illness themed chat room forums . These behaviours are known as safety behaviours and are continued because they appear to offer some relief from anxious thoughts and feelings. However, the relief they provide is likely to be temporary and in the long-run these sorts of behaviours act as maintaining factors that keep the anxious thoughts and feelings going. In this way, the disorder remains unresolved.
Treating Health Anxiety with CBT
The pattern of negative thoughts and behaviours found in health anxiety is highly distressing for the individual and can often place considerable strain on family and relationships. The most effective treatment for Health Anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT takes a structured approach to the symptoms of health anxiety which helps individuals to confront their fears and learn that it is safe to drop their reliance on checking and reassurance seeking and adopt a more realistic attitude to health concerns. Using a series of exercises and practice the maintenance factors that keep Health Anxiety going can be treated very successfully allowing sufferers to regain their confidence and manage anxious thoughts and feelings less catastrophically in the future.