If you have health problems, it’s reasonable, common and normal to be concerned. “People want to live and function healthily, and threats to your existence or your wellness can certainly lead to worry,” said Brenner Freeman, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Health in Scottsdale, AZ.
But sometimes, that worry intensifies, and you can develop anxiety related to your health. Then, the anxiety can decrease your quality of life or your ability to function. “That anxiety often becomes a problem in and of itself in addition to the physical health issues,” Dr. Freeman said.
There are two main disorders linked with health-related anxiety:
- Somatic symptom disorder. People with this disorder have unreasonable or excessive distress related to an actual, severe illness or health symptom. With it, they can have thoughts, emotional distress and problematic behaviors that limit their ability to function and their quality of life.
- Illness anxiety disorder. People with this disorder are afraid of having or developing an illness, but don’t have sufficient symptoms of the illness or a good reason for the fear. They may have excessive numbers of doctor visits and medical evaluations. Or they may take the opposite approach and anxiously avoid health care.
“This class of mental health conditions is very common,” Dr. Freeman said. It affects about one in five people who see a primary care physician. But most people do not realize they have a problem — they don’t see their level of distress or their behaviors as unreasonable or excessive. “This makes it hard for them to get the treatment they need,” Dr. Freeman said.
Anxiety about your health can also trigger physical symptoms, including:
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Headaches and body pain
- Shortness of breath
The abundance of health information online does not help. Simple web searches for things like headaches or chest pain are just as likely to lead to sites describing serious conditions as benign ones. So, the internet can be dangerous for anyone prone to health-related anxiety. A myriad of chat rooms and articles can be found online filled with conflicting advice, opinions and falsehoods.
What to do if you think you could have health-related anxiety
Talking to a mental health professional or your primary care physician can help determine if your level of worry about your health is reasonable or excessive. If you have health-related anxiety, talk therapy can help. “Talk therapy helps lessen your distress about illness and can teach you how to reframe unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behavioral processes that reinforce or cause the illness,” Dr. Freeman said.
It can also be helpful to coordinate your health care as much as possible through a primary care physician you trust. “A doctor who knows you well can alleviate your concerns about your illness or ailments and help prevent unnecessary medical tests and treatments that may only worsen illness anxiety or somatic symptom disorder,” Dr. Freeman said.
You might think that being tested for medical conditions would help alleviate your anxiety, but often, that’s not the case. Most people don’t feel reassured by negative test results for long. And excessive testing increases the risk of incidental findings that could worsen and reinforce anxiety.
When online, avoid infomercials and sites promoting cures "for sale". When seeking medical information, use reputable websites by recognized health professionals.
There are no medicines that specifically treat somatic symptom disorder or illness anxiety disorder. “In fact, unnecessary medication treatment of these disorders may only reinforce or worsen the illness,” Dr. Freeman said. However, treating a coexisting sleep problem or mental health problems such as depression or anxiety may help you be more able to engage in the right treatments for health-related anxiety.
The bottom line
It’s natural to want to live well and feel healthy, so when you have an illness or health symptoms, it’s reasonable to be concerned. But excessive worry about your health can develop into health-related anxiety, which can impair your ability to function and add to your physical symptoms.
It can be hard to recognize signs of health-related anxiety in yourself since the way you feel can seem normal to you. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about your concerns, reach out to Banner Health.
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This article was updated on March 14, 2023.