Health Anxiety (or Hypochondiasis) is characterized by excessive fears of having a serious illness or disease. People who suffer from health anxiety misinterpret their bodily symptoms (heartbeat, sweating, headache, coughing, minor sores, vague aches and pains, etc.) and then attribute these symptoms to various diseases or conditions (heart attack, brain tumor, lung cancer, AIDS, etc.). Subsequently, individuals will perform certain compulsions or rituals in an effort to reduce their anxiety. Common rituals include repeated checking of the body for symptoms, searching the internet for information about their symptoms or suspected illness, and seeking excessive reassurance from medical professionals about their concerns. As in other anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, these rituals provide only a temporary reduction in anxiety before they must be repeated.
Approximately 4-6% of the general population can be diagnosed with health anxiety. Onset of health anxiety often occurs in early adulthood, although it can begin at any age. It often lasts over a long period of time with some waxing and waning of symptom severity.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered to be the most effective treatment for health anxiety. Specifically, Exposure and Response Prevention (E/RP), which is a type of CBT, is an important part of the treatment. Individuals are asked to engage in activities designed to trigger their fears of having a disease or illness and/or the feared bodily sensations directly. These activities must be completed while refraining from any rituals or other anxiety-reducing behaviours. Additionally, Cognitive Restructuring, which is another type of CBT, can be used to challenge faulty beliefs about one’s health concerns.