Erik Andersson, PhD, psychologist and researcher in the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
Bottom Line: Your doctor says you’re fine, so why do your health worries feel so real?
What’s normal when it comes to worrying about my health? My fears about getting sick have my stomach in knots all the time, and seeing my doctor doesn’t help for more than the time I’m in the exam room.
It’s natural to worry about your health from time to time. For most people, a doctor visit with a clean bill of health is enough to put their mind at ease. But for those who have ongoing anxiety about their health, a condition appropriately called health anxiety, a doctor’s reassurance is short-lived or rings hollow and they continue to worry (and may continue to go to doctors for reassurance again and again). In severe cases, the anxiety can spiral out of control and take over the person’s life, says psychologist Erik Andersson, PhD. Mental health professionals distinguish two forms of health anxiety—somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder. Together they’re estimated to affect just 3% to 4% of people worldwide, yet they make up a very high percentage of doctor visits—20% of people who seek medical care are anxious about their health. With somatic symptom disorder, some people feel real physical symptoms like pain or fatigue and then worry excessively that something extremely serious is causing them. Others misinterpret normal body sensations, such as an occasionally fast heartbeat, as dangerous signs of illness. They imagine worst-case scenarios—for instance, that any headache is a sign of a brain tumor. They may spend hours on the Internet learning about brain tumors and convince themselves they indeed have one. With illness anxiety disorder, people are preoccupied with the idea of getting sick but might not feel any physical symptoms. They may talk about illness a lot, worry about catching infectious diseases they’ve read about in the news, and avoid situations that could sicken them such as visiting a loved one in a hospital. They may repeatedly check their bodies for signs of illness, noticing (and overreacting to) every skin blemish, lump and bump. What’s worse is that the anxiety can ultimately cause physical symptoms such as dizziness, tightness in the chest, tingling in hands and feet and more, and people experiencing these symptoms may not realize they are anxiety-related, fueling their worries over physical illnesses even more. If you’re living with either type of health anxiety, you don’t need to suffer. Treatment can help you regain control over your fears. According to Dr. Andersson, it is vital to seek psychological help if the amount of time you are spending worrying about your health is keeping you from truly living your life. Example: Instead of talking to your spouse and children at dinner, you are glued to your smartphone reading about symptoms.