Health anxiety is a condition where a healthy person believes he/she is sick. Even minor symptoms can cause severe distress in a person with health anxiety. Overcoming health anxiety involves reshaping the fear-based belief system causing the thoughts regarding ones health.
The two types of health anxiety are Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder (hypochondriasis). Somatic Symptom Disorder manifests as a preoccupation with physical symptoms. Hypochondriasis is an obsession with having a serious illness.
A person with hypochondria frequently fears major illnesses such as cancer, HIV and MS. Minor symptoms associated with the common cold could send the sufferer into a panic with worry. An obsession with symptoms may interfere with their every day life.
Viewed by medical professionals as “mild psychosis,” hypochondria shares many of the same symptoms as psychosis itself. This debilitating condition can destroy a persons life, causing crippling anxiety and constant reassurance seeking behavior.
What causes health anxiety?
Trauma can cause health anxiety in just about anyone. The loss of a loved one or a serious illness can cause the mind to become preoccupied with death. It has nothing to do with weakness. The person afflicted usually knows that he/she has health anxiety, and most try to find a way to overcome it.
What people need to understand about health anxiety
Health anxiety is a very real disorder that can cause severe distress in those afflicted. Symptoms of health anxiety are considered a mild psychosis. With paranoia and suspicion being common, hypochondria shares many distressing similarities with psychosis.
People with hypochondria can be viewed as if they are under a type of spell. Their belief that they are ill outweighs all reason or logic. People with this condition never chose to be this way. It is an extreme and often crippling disorder that stems beyond a persons ability to control it fully.
What are the symptoms of hypochondria?
- An obsessive preoccupation with the thought of having a life threatening illness.
- Reassurance seeking (doctor visits, hospital visits etc.).
- Rejection of all reassurance given by health professionals.
- Panic attacks
- A heightened awareness of somatic symptoms (head pain, leg pain, stomach growling, tinnitus etc.).
- Loss of functioning.
What doesn’t work?
Saying things like, “It’s all in your head,” “Just snap out of it already,” or “You’re fine, just get some fresh air”.
Saying comments that imply a person with hypochondria can just “snap out of it,” is wrong. This sort of thing absolutely needs to stop. Not only does saying this completely brush off the severity of this illness, it makes it harder for people with the illness to actually recover.
“Pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” does not apply to hypochondria. This cold approach will only aggravate their mental health, leading to major depression and an exasperation of symptoms.
It doesn’t matter if it seems ridiculous to you. They believe in their fear, and this belief does not go away on a whim.
Only thinking positive thoughts.
I can’t discredit this one completely, because positive thoughts do have a profound effect on the brain. On the other hand, this really doesn’t touch something like hypochondria.
A person with hypochondria has a strong fear-based belief system. Their attempt to replace those beliefs with positive thoughts will fail because they believe in the legitimacy of the fear more.
The power of the fear in hypochondria will typically outweigh that of positive thinking. What needs to be altered is the underlying belief system.
Reassurance seeking never works for health anxiety or hypochondria. If anything, reassurance seeking makes hypochondria worse.
Some symptoms can be very distressing. Stress itself can cause a wide range of symptoms that resemble the symptoms of serious illnesses.
Reassurance seeking may work temporarily in reducing hypochondria. It will just come back the moment a new symptom emerges. It doesn’t matter how big or small the symptom is, believe me, hypochondria will come back.
Facing and accepting your trauma.
One of the biggest causes of hypochondria and health anxiety is trauma.
Traumatic experiences can cause powerful cascades in the brain that lead to illness. If these traumatic experiences are not faced, that fear will grow over time like a malignant tumor.
Accepting and letting go does not happen overnight. The process of facing ones fear can be excruciatingly difficult for someone with health anxiety. It was discovered that one of the best cures for panic attacks is to “let it happen, and dive into it head on”. This is because it is the fear of fear itself keeping the panic attacks alive.
To read a more detailed explanation of this paradoxical phenomenon, see https://www.anxieties.com/65/panic-step6b.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been around for a long time. It is one of the best forms of therapy for hypochondria because it is vastly different from standard “talk therapy”.
CBT works for hypochondria because it helps people learn how to completely alter their thought patterns in a tangible way. CBT teaches people how to alter their entire belief system about themselves using thought exercises. It seems simple, but it works.
To read more about cognitive behavioral therapy in action, see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748674/.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very expensive. I’ve found this therapy is easy to do from home using books. If you plan on doing CBT on your own, be sure to commit to it over the long term.
A fantastic book you can use for CBT can be found here.
Facing the fear of death itself.
The root cause feeding the beliefs in a person with health anxiety is the fear of death itself. Death is the ultimate unknown. Most of us fear what we can’t understand. Acceptance of what we know we can’t understand frees us from that fear.
Some of us turn toward religion to spare us of that fear of the unknown, and that’s okay. Others turn to spirituality, or nothing at all, and that’s okay too. Personally, I choose to dive into quantum physics documentaries that explain the sheer absurdity of consciousness.
When you look beyond the physical idea of “dying” and understand that the “unknown” holds so much more than what we see on the surface, your fear will lose its power.
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. – Mark Twain
Fear of death itself may be the ultimate cure for hypochondria. It is also the hardest thing to accept. The process of accepting death as a part of life is quite literally facing the final boss of all fears.
It’s one thing to change our thoughts about death. Belief takes time. If you can change your beliefs about death, and trust that everything might just be okay after all, you will break yourself from the chains of health anxiety.
While you are on your journey to recovering from health anxiety, I highly suggest the book, “Hope and Help for Your Nerves: End Anxiety Now,” by Claire Weekes. See here.
Hypochondria doesn’t have to last a lifetime.
You can beat hypochondria. Be patient with yourself and always remember that by using two steps, you can overcome this debilitating illness. By facing and accepting your fears you will strip fear itself from its power over you.
The underlying causes of health anxiety are trauma and a fear-based belief system (fear of death, fear of cancer etc.). Overcoming health anxiety rarely comes in pill form, but if symptoms are too severe, medication may be necessary. That being said, unless the underlying beliefs are not addressed, the illness may never go away.
Many people have overcome health anxiety. With time and effort, I promise it can and will get better.
To read more about anxiety disorders and the symptoms they cause, see http://circumnavigating-madness.com/2019/11/05/what-does-it-feel-like-to-live-with-generalized-anxiety-disorder/.