Everyone has experienced that moment of searching your symptoms on the internet and stumbling upon some unnerving answers. When Google tells you your headache might actually be fatal, it’s hard not to panic a little.
But for people with health anxiety, worrying about a chronic or fatal illness is almost constant. This type of anxiety disorder is officially known as illness anxiety disorder (and formerly known as hypochondriasis).
Changes in the depth of breathing, sounds from digestion, or acceleration of heart rate could all be perceived as potential “symptoms,” according to Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Generally, people with this issue have no symptoms of illness or may misinterpret normal physical sensations or minor symptoms as [signs] of a major illness,” says Jessica MacDonald, PhD, licenced clinical psychologist and certified telebehavioral health specialist at Soho CBT and Mindfulness.
Like all anxiety disorders, health anxiety causes the individual to constantly be “on edge” and looking for threats; in this case, the “threats” are viruses, disorders, or tumors. While people with illness anxiety disorder don’t actually have the symptoms of the diseases they fear, symptoms of anxiety itself may further fuel their worries, such as:
Lightheadedness and dizziness
The significant distress over potential illnesses may make them unable to go about their daily lives. Individuals with health anxiety “may spend a great deal of time, money, and effort going from doctors’ appointment to appointment,” says Dr. MacDonald. It may also cause the individual to avoid going certain places “where they perceive that they could be exposed to illness,” she adds.
The endless doctor appointments may provide temporary relief, but it never lasts for long. “People with illness anxiety disorder may have built their identity on the idea of being sick, or may have such strong and intense thoughts and emotions surrounding the idea of being sick, that the idea of getting a clean bill of health from a physician is not reassuring,” says Dr. MacDonald.
There are many theories about what causes illness anxiety disorder, and it may vary by person. Some possible causes are difficulty interpreting normal discomfort, early childhood illness, having parents who are overly focused on illness, significant life stress, childhood abuse, or a general tendency of worrying, according to Dr. MacDonald.
Like other anxiety disorders, illness anxiety disorder is treatable. Many doctors recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This style of therapy helps the individual recognize cognitive distortions (such as jumping to conclusions) and retrains their thought processes to avoid letting irrational thoughts fester.
If someone is living with illness anxiety disorder, it may be scary and difficult to let their guard down, but treatment is possible and can improve quality of life (and health). Learn more about treating anxiety disorders here.