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What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is an obsessive, irrational worry that you have a serious medical condition. Many people with this condition find it difficult to live normal lives or function normally due to their preexisting fears. Bodily functions like breathing and heartbeat, or physical oddities and discomfort like rashes, headaches or lightheadedness, can trigger them to worry excessively and create more elaborate problems that frankly do not exist.
People with health anxiety tend to worry about specific organs (the heart, or brain), or diseases they heard of or read about. For example “Covid-19 is infecting people all over the world, it’s only a matter of time till infects me.”
The severity of health anxiety may fluctuate, and increase with age or during stressful life events.
Anxiety is a Protective Mechanism
Anxiety is a protective mechanism and scanning the body for an illness seems like the right thing to do to protect ourselves. However, when we are preoccupied with something, we tend to notice it even more normal. For example, when you are looking to purchase a new car, you tend to suddenly pay extra attention to every car on the road that catches your eye, when previously, you wouldn’t have even looked twice. Looking for symptoms makes you notice subtle sensations you might otherwise ignore. When you become preoccupied with bodily sensations, those sensations become amplified and last longer.
To further understand what living with health anxiety is like, imagine the alarm at your front door went off every time someone randomly walks past. The door alarm would be misinterpreting passersby as visitors. This is similar to what happens with health anxiety. The person’s mind constantly interprets sensations that could be seen as normal, to be potentially life threatening
Types of health anxiety
There are two kinds of health anxiety:
- Illness anxiety disorder: this occurs when the person has no physical symptoms
- Somatic symptom disorder: this particularly occurs when the person has symptoms that are perceived as distressing to them or if they have multiple symptoms
Causes and contributing factors
Experts are yet to pin point the exact cause of health anxiety, however, it has been observed that the following factors contribute:
- Poor knowledge of diseases and body sensations
- Being around family or friends who worry a lot about their health or your health
- Past experiences dealing with serious illnesses in childhood. The trauma from such experience may cause people to worry about something similar reoccurring in adulthood.
Warning signs of health anxiety
Health anxiety is typically characterized by preoccupation with the idea that you are seriously ill, based on normal body sensations (such as a noisy stomach) or minor signs (such as a minor rash). Signs and symptoms may include:
- Checking the body for a disease over and over
- Dodging doctor’s appointments to avoid diagnosis with a serious illness
- Avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks
- Constantly talking about your health and possible illnesses
- Frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses
- Worrying excessively about a specific medical condition or your risk of developing a medical condition because it runs in your family
Who’s At Risk?
Health anxiety disorder often starts during early adulthood and could get progressively worse with age. In older people, the common fear is potential loss of memory. Other risk factors are:
- Childhood abuse
- Having a worrying personality
- Going through a stressful period in life
How Can Telemedicine Help?
With telemedicine, people with health anxiety can access care instantly through video call, audio call text or email, and receive reassurance from medical professionals. This provides them a more helpful alternative to searching online for their symptoms. If the worries still persist despite constant reassurance (which often happens), it would be necessary for such a person to see a clinical psychologist and begin cognitive-behavioral therapy, which has proven to be the most effective treatment.
Luckily, mental health support is also available via telemedicine platforms. Due to the fact that people living with health anxiety, tend to avoid conventional hospital visits, online therapy would be the ideal medium to provide necessary support to them.