March 23, 2017
We all know someone who believes every minor ache and pain they feel is a sign of something more serious. And honestly, who could blame them when there are endless online resources that claim a simple headache could mean anything from a simple lack of food to the early symptoms of a brain tumor!
This fear of having a serious medical illness is commonly known as hypochondriasis. Unlike a phobia of snakes or heights, our body’s aches and pains are always with us, making the fear of illness omnipresent. And in a country like the U.S. where health is constantly in the spotlight, the likelihood of experiencing this condition increases. In fact, it’s said to affect anywhere from 9-14 percent of the U.S. population.
Technically speaking, hypochondriasis is a diagnosis from the past. In 2013, it was removed from the standard encyclopedia that classifies mental health disorders and replaced with two disorders: Somatic Symptom Disorder, which is the diagnosis given to people who have excessive somatic (bodily) symptoms, and Illness Anxiety Disorder, which is the diagnosis given to people who are excessively anxious about illness.
There’s been an influx in using the term “health anxiety,” which refers to anxiety centered on one’s health, often with the connotation of an abnormal level of anxiety.
One might think that someone with health anxiety is able to diagnose their symptoms quickly and, therefore, get sick less often. But the irony is that people who have health anxiety are also more likely to develop serious illnesses. People with health anxiety often become their symptoms; convincing yourself you’re sick can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many of the symptoms people feel are the physical sensations caused by stress or depression that go along with health anxiety. For example, cortisol, the stress hormone, is healthy and energizing in small doses. However, when consistently released from abundant anxiety, it can become debilitating and take a drastic toll on one’s health.
Additionally, health anxiety doesn’t always prompt people to make more doctor appointments. Richard Morris, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Nottingham, remarks, “What the medical profession does not understand is that people with health anxiety often both seek reassurance for some conditions but also avoid help when others would seek it.” There are a few theories for this, one being that some with health anxiety don’t actually want to be sick, and receiving a diagnosis would heighten their anxiety.
Another ironic aspect of health anxiety is that no, you don’t have cancer, but you likely do still need treatment for your anxiety. If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, don’t be afraid to seek help.