Health Anxiety: Worrying About Illness Takes A Big Toll

I recently discovered that I no longer suffer from hypochondria. How did I manage to overcome this health anxiety? I’m so glad you asked!

Did I go to a shaman, take an ayahuasca trip and barf out all of my neuroses? Nope.

Could I have visited Joshua Tree, dropped acid and been miraculously healed? Not even close.

The truth is much more boring. The reason that I am no longer a hypochondriac is because (drum roll, please) the name has been changed to Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD). So, not only am I not cured, but I have to unlearn calling it hypochondriasis and commit a new term to memory. It’s a lose-lose in my opinion!

So what’s with the rebranding of hypochondria? This is due to the negative stigma of the hypochondriac label.

“IAD got a makeover in the 2013 DSM update when its name was changed from hypochondriasis to illness anxiety disorder, namely because of the stigma associated with being labeled a ‘hypochondriac,’” reports Buzzfeed. “Because IAD is a relatively new diagnosis, its true prevalence is largely unknown, although one 2017 study suggested that it’s less than 1% of the population.”

Health Anxiety Can Develop At A Young Age

My health anxiety started at a young age and is most likely due to the wiring of my brain. It probably didn’t help that my dad is a doctor and I was knowledgeable of health issues early on in my life.

When I was seven, my parents sent me to a sleepaway tennis camp for a week. On the second night, I was in the nurse’s office, convinced that I was having a heart attack. My chest DID hurt, but it was due to eight straight hours of tennis – something my little body was not used to.

I’d pulled several muscles in my chest, hence the pain. When my parents arrived to pick me up, I was inconsolable and sure I was going to die. My dad explained that 7-year-olds do not have heart attacks, and although that sounded correct, my brain was not hearing it. Soon after, I was in therapy, and although it helps, there are still moments where I hear about a disease and think “I have that.” And I’m far from alone in dealing with intrusive thoughts about health problems.

“Health anxiety is a relatively common condition, known to affect some 4% to 5% of people,” according to Harvard Health. “But experts believe it may be underreported, and that the percentage could be closer to 12% — or even twice that.”

What is Health Anxiety?

Illness anxiety disorder, or health anxiety, is the overwhelming worry that there is something physically wrong with you to the point of obsession. In many cases, no amount of reassurance from health professionals or negative test results can convince the sufferer that they are okay.

“There are two types of health anxieties: Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder, formally known as hypochondriasis,” according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). “Many people with health anxiety are often unable to function or enjoy life due to their fears and preoccupations. They obsess over bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat), physical oddities (skin blemishes), and physical discomfort (headaches, stomach aches, lightheadedness).”

Causes of Health Anxiety

“IAD isn’t always accompanied by other medical conditions, but when it is, it’s commonly alongside obsessive-compulsive disorder because of the ruminating nature of one’s thoughts and depression,” says Buzzfeed.

Although it’s not always due to other mental health issues and can exist on its own, it can also come on later in life. If a person has a traumatic injury or illness, they may develop health anxiety due to the health scare.

The COVID pandemic was a big factor in stirring up health anxiety in the public – therapists found that more and more people sought therapy for their worries.

“COVID, however, is filling therapists’ offices with new and existing patients to address concerns about long COVID, death — particularly dying alone, as thousands did early on in the pandemic — and fears about overwhelmed hospitals having few resources to treat them if they get sick,” Karen Cassiday, clinical psychologist and owner of the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, told Buzzfeed.

“I’ve had patients that haven’t been in for 20 years. They were doing great and then they started getting symptoms of their illness anxiety again,” Cassiday said. “I’m hearing the same thing from others who have specialty clinics like mine.”

Symptoms of Health Anxiety

So, how do you know if you are sick or if you just have health anxiety about being sick? Here are some telltale signs:

  • You are not suffering from any symptoms but still think that you are sick.

  • When a doctor or health professional reassures you that you don’t have a disease or a test shows no illnesses, it doesn’t relieve your anxiety.

  • You spend a lot of time seeking health information on the internet.

  • Reading a story or hearing about a disease makes you start worrying that you have it.

  • Your health anxiety is interfering with your daily life.

Health anxiety does not only present itself in psychological ways, and many people suffer from very real, very scary physical symptoms as well.

“As you imagine the worst, your body’s alarm system sounds off in the form of symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, jitters, tingling, lightheadedness, nausea, stomach discomfort, sweating, headaches, etc.) giving your imagination additional fuel to create great works of fiction.The symptoms are real,” says the ADAA.

If any of these symptoms sound familiar or you think you may have IAD, talk to your primary care doctor, therapist, or other licensed medical professional to discuss your concerns and a treatment plan.

“To be diagnosed, all of these symptoms must be present for at least six months, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnosis guidelines used by all mental health professionals,” says Buzzfeed.

How to Deal with Health Anxiety

  • Seeking Professional Help: If you feel as if health anxiety is affecting your quality of life, talk to your doctor or therapist.

  • Practicing Relaxation Techniques: Doing activities like yoga, deep breathing exercises or other ways to refocus your brain may help you relax. 

  • Identify your Triggers: What causes your health anxiety to spike? Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them. 

  • Challenging Negative Thoughts: Once these thoughts appear, practice rationalizing why these thoughts are negative and untrue. A therapist can help you with some techniques.


Has your mental health been impacted due to illness anxiety disorder? Share with us in the comments.

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