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Health Anxiety–Is This a Real Thing?

One of the most common questions we get in our inbox goes something like this: “Sometimes I get overwhelmed with anxiety because I truly believe that I have some form of cancer or another illness. I google my symptoms and that makes it worse. Am I the only one that has this?”

Anxiety Sisters with this issue reach out to Mags and me every single day.  You are definitely not alone if you find yourself obsessing over health issues. There is even a diagnosis for this (I know since I have it) called Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD), which used to be known as hypochondria. My diagnosis remains “obsessive hypochondriasis” but, if my psychiatrist were to update my records, I would have IAD. It is closely related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Here are some of the hallmarks of this anxiety disorder:

  • A preoccupation with having or developing a serious medical condition
  • Disbelieving negative test results or a doctor’s reassurance that you are not ill
  • Excessive worry about a specific health condition
  • Hyper-awareness of every bodily sensation or twinge (as I write this, I am noticing a sharp pain under my left breast—what could cause this?)
  • Inability to think or talk about topics unrelated to your health
  • Constant googling of symptoms and causes on the internet (apparently, it’s gas)
  • Compulsive “checking” for signs of illness
  • Hanging out in medical chatrooms
  • Avoiding places, people or activities for fear of health risks
  • Making frequent medical appointments (in order to receive reassurances you will then ignore)
  • Searching for “specialists” and field experts to accurately diagnose what other practitioners have missed
  • Avoiding medical appointments for fear of discovering that you do indeed have a serious illness

All of this obsessional thinking and irrational behavior can wreak utter havoc on your life. It certainly made a mess of mine: for months, I was unable to leave my home for fear of having a heart attack in public—despite tests that showed over and over that I have a healthy heart. I constantly checked my pulse and even stopped exercising for fear that it would cause my heart to beat too fast. When I finally did leave my house, I made sure I was within 5 miles of a hospital. I knew all the local cardiologists and the names of specialists I would call when the big event happened. And I had so much difficulty falling asleep at night due to unbearable worrying about whatever symptoms I had that day. Did I mention the ER visits? There were a few…IAD can be very expensive!

Mags and I gently remind our suffering sisters that what they are feeling is indeed anxiety. We say it again and again—not because we have the patience of saints—but because we understand from experience that it takes a very very long time and lots of repetition to chip away at that anxiety loop. Therapy alone was not enough. For me and for many others, that loop can be interrupted only by medication. Sometimes a brief stint on anti-anxiety meds can be enough to allow rationale to enter the picture. Oftentimes, this type of OCD requires a long-term commitment to an SSRI or similar drug. I look at it this way: I take my Prozac every day so I don’t have to take my pulse every day.

Once the illness anxiety loop is disrupted, you can then pursue other techniques such as saying mantras aloud (for example, “This too shall pass” or “I am not dying”). Diaphragmatic breathing is also really helpful as are other distracting activities like grounding and yoga.

What helps you manage your health-related anxiety?

Comments

  • Erica
    December 30, 2017

    This article spoke to me so much! I have been experiencing what I think is a rapid heart beat. I’ve seen two doctors, including a cardiologist and wore a heart monitor for two days which was completely normal. The cardiologist says I’m fine and I wish that was enough for me to overcome the obsession over every twinge or tiny pain that I think I feel. I am not on meds now but I’m thinking that may be the way to go after dealing with this for the past several months. Thank you for this article!

    reply
  • Mags
    January 10, 2018

    Erica,
    Thank you for writing to us and we understand where you are coming from in terms of the health fear. We have seen a few cardiologists ourselves and been very “tested” at doctors of all sorts. Even though you would think that going to the doctors and getting the all clear would be the end of the fear, we know that it is not (there is always that what if they missed something). The lesson here is that even the facts of the situation don’t cure a phobia. You may want to focus on getting treatment for the fear itself (e.g., medication, therapy, and using some of the ideas from our blog). Keep reminding yourself that you are okay and that “this too shall pass” because talking to yourself helps. Let us know how you are doing, Mags and Abs

    reply
  • Kelly
    February 22, 2018

    Best anxiety blog I’ve found! Everything is so relatable, helpful and calming. I have crazy health anxiety. Even when I tell myself I’m not dying, my brain always goes to but what if this time there is really something wrong. It’s exhausting! Thank God for medicine that helps make it better, even though I hate having to take medication at all. Thank you!!

    reply
  • Janie
    February 23, 2018

    I cant make myself go to doctors but always thing something is wrong with me and Im dying. I no longer look things up on the internet- because I wouldn’t be able to make it thru the day afterwards. I believe I have white coat syndrome and cant even go to the dentist. It is exhausting living this way.

    reply
    • Rebecca
      May 23, 2019

      Me, too. When I finally do make appointments, I postpone them two or three times. I am way behind on every routine test recommended.

      reply
  • Mistie Lewis
    November 20, 2019

    Thank you sooo much for posting this. It makes me feel not so alone.

    reply
    • Abs
      November 21, 2019

      You are definitely not alone! We have gotten hundreds of emails about health anxiety and probably a third of our “Ask the Anxiety Sisters” questions are about health anxiety!

      reply
  • Paula
    November 22, 2019

    This! Spot on!

    reply
  • Rachel
    November 25, 2019

    Thank you! I needed this! My family and friends r amazing and try to be supportive but I understand how I can frustrate and annoy them constantly talking about it! Thank you! This was a blessing❤️ I don’t feel alone 🙂 prayers for everyone!

    reply
  • Bea
    December 9, 2020

    I’m writing this because I’m just truly facing the reality of this type of anxiety. I’ve been in therapy for over 10 years and despite all my progress, this health anxiety has truly ramped up in the past year. I have a diagnosis of Atypical Migraine which I continue to challenge even after MRI, CT scan and etc. Recently, I’ve started experiencing different symptoms like numbness on muscles, feeling like they’re twitching, convinced I have different sensation and nervous reactions. My reflexes have been tested multiple times by doctors and physiotherapists who assure me I respond just fine. I now have symptoms that COULD be a disease but also COULD be just anxiety and all of it getting worse. I was at my laptop and convinced my hands couldn’t move properly on the keyboard. I got up and talked to myself in the mirror to show me I’m ok, I can move, I’m reacting just fine and honestly, all of the diseases out there don’t really have a cure so I’d have to manage it through calming myself down and making lifestyle changes anyway. Sometimes the symptoms go away after this and sometimes they don’t.. often I’m able to calm myself down a couple of times during a day but totally lose it after the 3rd episode in the evening. I’m tired of seeing my partner and my son worrying about me. I have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow but I’m aware that any test/diagnosis would take a long time so I’m bound to manage this on my own. Thank you for reading. Needed to get it off my chest.

    reply
  • Karen
    June 19, 2021

    I am so glad to hear it’s just not me.

    reply
  • Wileen Reber
    June 23, 2021

    I have it. I get it. I have had a heart attack ten years s ago, and now have 5 stents and got a pacemaker last summer. I’m eating healthy but my weight keeps going up. I even gave up all carbs. Diabetes runs in my family. Now I’m obsessed with checking my blood sugar. My triglycerides are very high. I’m afraid of another heart event

    reply
  • Megan
    July 4, 2021

    Well to start I Have extreme Healrh anxiety every single symptom i look up leads to cancer or somethig deadly a virus or disease. Some days are manageable…others are completely unbareable.

    I cant go to the sictors because i dont want to be diagnosed with anything, when i do go i have a panic attack and waiting For Results of any kind makes Me Extremely anxious. I’m 23 and this is starti f to affect me Even being able to get up and go to work.

    Someone please tell me it gets better because im genuinely Beginning To Give ip

    reply

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