Health anxiety is better known as its former name, hypochondria. This is a persistent and unwarranted fear of getting a serious health problem like cancer. This is also one of the most common anxiety disorders in the general population. According to Professor Tyrer, head of the mental health at the Imperial College London, at least 1% of the UK’s population suffer from health anxiety.
Causes of Health Anxiety
Mental health professionals are not sure why some people develop health anxiety and some do not. Some people may have witnessed a lingering death of a loved one and fear that the same thing will happen to them. Others may develop health anxiety as part of another mental illness.
The Internet has been both a blessing and a curse for the medical profession. Patients can quickly look up symptoms to see if they are serious enough to go to a doctor. However, they may also leap to conclusions and ask for more appointments, tests and diagnostic imaging than they really need. The Internet may be one reason why mental health professionals are reporting more cases of health anxiety than ever.
Symptoms of Health Anxiety
It can be difficult for doctors and therapists to diagnose health anxiety because the symptoms are different for each sufferer. It also can hard to distinguish unfounded worried from real worries. For example, a person who suffers from migraines may naturally worry if he or she has a brain tumor. But someone with health anxiety will keep asking for more tests even after the first one or two tests clearly show that a brain tumor is not present.
People with health anxiety need constant reassurance that they do not have a potentially deadly or crippling condition. Signs that you or a loved one may have health anxiety include:
- Spending more and more time online looking up medical information
- Refusing to go to outings with family or friends in case they are sick
- Going to more doctors and looking for more doctors to go to
- Talking more and more about your symptoms
- An inability to be calmed by a diagnostic test showing that they are okay
Treatments for Health Anxiety
The good news about health anxiety is that it is treatable. There is no one right way to treat hypochondria for everyone. Patients may need a combination of treatments in order to get back to living a more normal life. Some patients may be suffering with other anxiety conditions as well as health anxiety.
Treatment is often a combination of drugs and cognitive behavior therapy. Drugs may be taken for the rest of the patient’s life or for a short time only, depending on the patient’s individual circumstance. Drugs given for health anxiety include:
- SSRI antidepressants like fluoxetine (Prozac) or paroxetine (Paxil)
- Tricyclic antidepressants like clomipramine (Anafranil)
- Anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines
- Beta-blockers, a type of high blood pressure medication
Patients also do well to write about their anxieties in a special journal. This helps to relieve stress. It can also be shared with doctors and therapists.
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