How to Get Rid of Health Anxiety: A Comprehensive, Evidence-Based Guide
Health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder or hypochondria, is a real condition marked by an intense preoccupation or worry about developing a serious illness despite having no signs or symptoms of an actual medical condition . It goes beyond normal concern over health and can become extremely distressing and disruptive to daily functioning. The good news is there are many effective strategies to help overcome health anxiety. This comprehensive guide covers all the key steps you can take and provides trustworthy information from leading health authorities and learne How to Get Rid of Health Anxiety.
What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is categorized as a type of anxiety disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) . It is characterized by an intense fear or conviction that one has or is in danger of contracting a serious illness, despite a lack of symptoms or medical evidence to support this belief .
Common features of health anxiety include :
- Preoccupation and obsessive worrying about health and illness
- Repeatedly checking the body for signs of illness
- Repeatedly seeking reassurance from loved ones or doctors
- Avoiding health-related activities or news due to feelings of anxiety
- Difficulty accepting medical test results as accurate if they indicate good health
Health anxiety goes beyond normal concern over health. It can be extremely distressing and intrusive, even resulting in repeated doctor visits and medical tests. Yet tests and exams usually provide no evidence of a serious condition.
What Causes Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety does not have one definitive cause, but rather is believed to be the result of a combination of factors, including :
- Genetics: Research suggests health anxiety can run in families, indicating a possible genetic predisposition.
- Brain chemistry: The brains of those with health anxiety may have more sensitivity in areas that identify threats and trigger worry. Higher levels of anxiety also correlate with increased activity in error detection circuits.
- Environmental factors: Traumatic events related to health, seeing friends or family with major illnesses, or reading health-related stories in the media can trigger health anxiety in some people.
- Cognitive distortions: Those with health anxiety are more prone to cognitive distortions like catastrophic thinking, confirmation bias, or overestimation of threat.
- Personality traits: Traits like neuroticism or introversion have been associated with higher health anxiety. Perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty also correlate strongly with occurrence of illness anxiety disorder.
Keep in mind that developing some health anxiety from time to time, such as worrying about a medical procedure or scanning one’s body for abnormal symptoms, is normal. But when worry about health is extreme, causes significant distress, and persists despite medical reassurance, it has developed into an anxiety disorder requiring treatment and try to find out How to Get Rid of Health Anxiety.
What are Symptoms of Health Anxiety?
Symptoms of health anxiety can be both emotional and physical. Common signs to watch out for include (5):
- Excessive worrying about health
- Feeling distressed about the possibility of having an undiagnosed illness
- Having anxiety about health that is difficult to control or turns into panic
- Repeatedly seeking reassurance from medical professionals or loved ones about not being ill
- Checking the body routinely for abnormalities
- Avoiding people or places associated with illness
- Difficulty accepting results when medical tests come back negative
- Muscle tension, aches and pains
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Nausea or upset stomach related to health worries
- Trembling or tingling sensations in the body
Keep in mind that some physical symptoms may also result indirectly from increased vigilance and tension in the body from health anxiety. Symptoms tend to wax and wane over time but feel quite distressing in the moment.
When to Seek Help for Health Anxiety
Occasional worry about a new symptom or concern over the implications of a minor medical issue is normal. But if health anxiety persists, continues despite medical evaluation, or begins interfering significantly in your life, it is time to seek additional help.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) indicates a diagnosis of illness anxiety disorder if one or both of the following occurs :
- You have been preoccupied with having or acquiring a serious illness for at least 6 months, even though your doctor has evaluated your symptoms multiple times and ruled out any medical condition.
- You have high levels of health-related anxiety about possibly having or acquiring an illness, as exhibited by behaviors like repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness over a period of at least 6 months or excessively requesting reassurances from a medical professional about having a serious illness over a period of at least 6 months.
So if your worry over health persists beyond 6 months and continues despite medical evaluation and reassurance, it is important to seek additional support.
Complications of Untreated Health Anxiety
Struggling with symptoms for a long time can result in significant life disruption and a compounding of issues over time. Potential complications of leaving health anxiety untreated include:
- Worsening anxiety leading to panic attacks or panic disorder
- Development of depression or substance abuse issues
- Digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Relationship conflict due to demands for constant reassurance
- Unnecessary medical testing and inappropriate treatment
- Financial strain due to costs of unneeded procedures and appointments
- Interference with work performance or daily activities
- Increased isolation and loneliness
- Thoughts of suicide in extreme cases
Getting help early on can prevent long term suffering and impairment down the road.
Professional Treatments Available
How to Get Rid of Health Anxiety-If struggling with persistent and distressing health anxiety, the good news is there are highly effective professional treatment options available. Leading health organizations including the National Health Service in the UK recommend utilizing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), often paired with an SSRI medication, for reducing illness anxiety disorder symptoms long-term .
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) targets unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that maintain health anxiety. This structured and goal-oriented form of psychotherapy helps identify, challenge, and replace anxiety-inducing thoughts, reduce avoidance, and take gradual exposure steps to facilitate habituation to feared illness situations . Numerous clinical trials substantiate CBT as one of the best therapy options for health anxiety disorder .
Anti-anxiety medications, namely SSRIs like sertraline, paroxetine or fluoxetine, are often prescribed alongside CBT to help mitigate feelings of anxiety and worry (9). Medication can provide short term relief while CBT targets underlying thought patterns for longer term improvement.
ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) has also shown promising results for health anxiety in initial clinical trials (10). ACT focuses on accepting internal experiences like anxious thoughts while also committing to actions aligned with personal values. This mindfulness-based approach has been gaining recognition for treating anxiety disorders and shows potential for helping illness anxiety.
Any of these therapies should only be undertaken with the guidance of qualified mental health professionals. Many therapists now offer telehealth options as well. Self-help strategies can serve as an adjunct to professional treatment.
Effective Self-Help Strategies and Coping Skills
Making positive lifestyle changes and utilizing key coping strategies between therapy sessions can aid recovery from health anxiety. Helpful self-care approaches include:
Learn relaxation techniques
Mastering relaxation skills helps ease physical tension and worry by triggering the body’s natural relaxation response. Options like diaphragmatic breathing, body scans, visualization, yoga or progressive muscle relaxation help calm both the mind and body. Apps like Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer offer excellent guided practices.
Limit health-related media
Reduce triggers by avoiding health segments on the news, not reading articles or web searches about diseases, and unfollowing anxiety-provoking health social media accounts. Limiting consumption prevents exposure to content that often reinforces unrealistic fears.
Practice present moment focus
Stay grounded in the here-and-now since that is the only point where one can truly take constructive action for health. When the mind gets carried away with “what if” thinking, gently bring attention back to the present by tuning into sensory experiences or activities requiring focus. This trains the pre-frontal cortex to dial back the worry response.
Counter confirmation bias
When anxiety grabs hold, there is a tendency to pay disproportionate attention to information confirming fears while dismissing evidence against it. Make an effort to do the opposite – write down medical test results showing health while challenging fearful thoughts with realistic facts.
Limit body checking and reassurance seeking
Compulsively checking for physical signs of illness and repeatedly seeking comfort from others fuels health anxiety rather than easing it long-term. Gradually reduce these safety seeking behaviors, even when it feels uncomfortable at first. Distract yourself instead or say reassuring statements out loud.
Practice self-care basics
Strengthen overall resiliency against anxiety by taking care of health fundamentals – following medical provider guidance, eating nutritious anti-inflammatory foods, exercising moderately, getting quality sleep, decreasing alcohol intake, and making time for enjoyable activities.
Research indicates supplements like omega-3s, vitamin D, zinc, magnesium, green tea and probiotics can help mitigate anxiety when used in conjunction with professional treatment plans (11). Checking with a provider first is advised.
Consider peer support
Joining a local anxiety support group, connecting with others dealing with health anxiety through trusted forums, or finding a mental health buddy provides community support for continued progress and motivation.
Remind yourself during tough moments that periods of increased anxiety are only temporary, physical symptoms often simply reflect the mind’s exaggerated response to perceived danger rather than actual illness, and that long term health outcomes are very often within your control through positive lifestyle choices.
When to Seek Emergency Care
Most symptoms of health anxiety, while extremely unpleasant in the moment, are not medically dangerous themselves. However, it is still smart to know warning signs requiring prompt emergency medical care, including:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Chest pain
- Trouble breathing
- Loss of consciousness
- Signs of shock like skin turning blue, very high fever, seizures, chest pain, etc.
- Symptoms indicative of a potential heart attack, stroke, diabetic emergency, etc.
If experiencing any concerning or dangerous symptoms, call emergency services like 999 straight away or get to an A&E. Inform the dispatcher about your anxiety issues as well so paramedics can best assist.
For non-emergency but persistent physical symptoms possibly stemming from health anxiety, schedule a same day appointment with your general practitioner to discuss and help provide some reassurance.
Long Term Outlook for Overcoming Health Anxiety
While health anxiety can feel consuming in the moment, the long term outlook with proper treatment and self-care is extremely promising. Research examining outcomes of therapist-led CBT protocols for illness anxiety disorder found that 70- 80% of individuals saw substantial reductions in health anxiety symptoms and worries over illness, with over half seeing full remission from the condition by the end of treatment (12).
Many also continue improving in follow up tracking for months and years afterwards, indicating health anxiety can be overcome in the long run through applying evidence-based strategies (13). Being patient with the process, utilizing professional and self-help techniques covered here, building in lifestyle factors to lower baseline stress, and not hesitating to get additional support during difficult periods can all help sustain progress as well.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Health Anxiety
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions on coping with health anxiety:
Q: How do I convince myself I don’t actually have a serious illness?
A: Rather than trying to convince yourself you are not ill, learn to accept the reality that serious conditions are possible in life for any person but extremely improbable without clear underlying symptoms or indicators in diagnostic testing. Commit to important values like staying engaged in meaningful activities even amidst uncertainty.
Q: Are my physical symptoms all in my head since doctors haven’t found anything wrong?
A: Anxiety is capable of producing real physical sensations like headaches, stomach issues, muscle tension, tingling, etc. due to overactivity in threat response regions of the brain. Think of it as the mind sending danger signals even in the absence of actual peril. Learning to dial back this over-vigilant response through therapy and coping strategies covered here allows symptoms to subside.
Q: How can I stop feeling like every new symptom is a sign of something serious?
A: Getting anxious over new benign symptoms or bodily sensations is understandable. But continually assessing for illness tends to backfire by amplifying focus on normal fluctuations. Concentrate on aspects of health you can control through lifestyle while letting the body’s natural sensations come and go, rather than judging them as threatening. Therapy also helps modify extreme appraisals.
Q: Will health anxiety eventually just go away on its own if I try to ignore it?
A: Research clearly shows health anxiety does not typically fade away on its own, but rather persists and often gets worse without proper treatment. Ignoring it generally backfires since avoidance and suppression keep you stuck in patterns triggering symptoms long-term. Getting professional help through methods like CBT and learning to face fears in gradual steps are much more likely to lead to improvement.
The key is not allowing anxiety to continue limiting important life activities. Even if worrying thoughts pop up from time to time, you can learn skills through therapy and self-care to prevent preoccupation over health from controlling your life. This frees up mental bandwidth to focus on what brings you joy and purpose day to day.
In Conclusion: How To Get Rid Of Health Anxiety
The reality is each person only has limited control over health outcomes. No amount of worrying changes the unalterable. But there are always constructive actions one can take – building relationships, pursuing meaningful interests, looking out for others, etc. Accepting the worries when they arise, then deliberately shifting energy toward deeper values often reduces the grip health anxiety can have over life in the bigger picture. Progress takes patience, so take it step by step utilizing resources here rather than getting discouraged. You deserve to feel better.