There are many different types of anxiety presentations, panic, generalised anxiety, social anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to name a few. However health anxiety is a common one that is often missed. No doubt you know some person who has a beaten path to their GP’s door. Every little pain or ache is checked out. A headache could be a brain tumour!
If there are multiple visits to the GP in the absence of any serious physical issue, health anxiety could be considered. It involves an obsessional preoccupation with the belief that they are (or will be) experiencing a physical illness. The most common health anxieties tend to centre on conditions such as cancer, HIV, tumours or MS. However, the person experiencing health anxiety or illness phobia may fixate on any illness.
This condition is also known as hypochondriasis. I am not a fan of this diagnosis as it’s labelling and judgemental and doesn’t help the person solve their anxiety.
Harmless physical symptoms are seen as indicators of serious disease or severe medical conditions. For example, if the person feels that their chest is getting tight, they may believe that they are having a heart attack. They frequently misinterpret physical symptoms of anxiety as a sign of an impending physical problem.
The individual with health anxiety will scan their body for any signs that they are developing a physical illness, maybe interpret a headache as a brain tumour. Some people affected by this disorder may also link non physical problems to having a serious illness. So forgetting where they put their phone or keys leads to a belief that they have Alzheimer’s.
I have met some people with this type of disorder who are so convinced that they have a certain physical illness, that all of their focus is on obtaining a diagnosis. They will go to as many doctors as they can, seeking second, third and fourth opinions.
In such instances, many different tests (such as MRI, echocardiograms and in some cases even exploratory surgery) are requested by the person experiencing the health anxiety.
Unfortunately, these tests are often not enough to convince them that they are not physically ill and can therefore be taken time and time again. It is important to remember that repeated visits are due to the fact the sufferer fully believes that they are experiencing a physical illness, rather than due to attention seeking behaviours.
They will spend a lot of time carrying out excessive checking behaviours where they will look for marks, lumps, sores and rashes on their body which may indicate the onset of a physical illness. These checking behaviours also include asking friends and family members to assist them in checking.
The anxiety experienced around the possibility that they may find something to indicate illness or around the idea that they may catch a particular illness can lead to high levels of anxiety.
This in turn can increase physical symptoms of anxiety (such as an increased heart rate, chest pain or tightness in the chest, dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, dry mouth or sweating). Upon noticing this increase in physical symptoms, the sufferer’s idea that they are experiencing a physical illness is reinforced.
Media campaigns on specific physical illnesses can also cause problems for people experiencing health and illness anxiety. Often, watching programmes relating to physical illness or reading about specific conditions may lead those affected to feel that they have experienced symptoms of that specific condition. Next week we will look at treating health anxiety.