I don’t think there is a person alive that has not felt a twinge in their side, had a tickly cough or spotted what looks like the start of a rash or another symptom and begun to worry what this might mean, and think it might be the sign of something serious. Usually this worry can be resolved quite quickly, but, for some people, even the disappearance of the symptom, a clear test result or a doctor’s reassurance cannot shift these health worries which then become overwhelming, cause great distress and affect their everyday life. This excessive worry about health is known as health anxiety, or hypochondria.
There are many reasons you might develop health anxiety. You may be going through a particularly stressful period of your life such as a death in your family, and divert the painful feelings that arise around this into anxiety about your own health. Or you may have worried a lot about your health when you were young, and find this resurfaces at times of stress. Or it may be you find it difficult to handle conflict, and catastrophise when faced with problems in your life.
Have you got health anxiety?
If you can answer “yes” to most of the following questions, it’s likely that you do:
- Do you constantly carry out checks and self-examinations and diagnose yourself with conditions as a result?
- Have you felt unconvinced when a doctor gives you a clean bill of health or disbelieving when a doctor diagnoses you?
- Has your worry about having a serious illness lasted six months or more?
- Has your preoccupation with symptoms and health left you feeling distressed?
- Do you need constant reassurance that you are fine, and never really believe what you are being told?
- Has your social life, family life or working life suffered as a result of this?
One thing that seriously exacerbates health anxiety is constantly seeking information and obsessively researching illnesses from the internet. If you do this, your condition can be termed cyberchondria. A cyberchondriac is a person who compulsively searches the Internet for information about real or imagined symptoms of illness.
The explosion, over the past ten or 15 years, of online health advice sites has made it possible for you to find a diagnosis that fits your symptoms or fears within seconds of having them and logging on. New research shows that 80 % of us turn to the internet for health advice and 22 % of us use online sources to diagnose ourselves. The idea of all health advice sites is to put your mind at rest, but if you have health anxiety it can allow this to lead to constant checking and have the opposite effect and ramp up your health anxiety by giving you more, and more dire, diagnoses to obsess about. This can allow you to believe that your ache or rash or cough is an omen of death, rather than a natural occurrence which will pass in time. It also prevents you from realising that perhaps it is your worrying about it that is the real cause for concern.
A recent study reported that the more health-research people do on the internet, the higher their levels of health anxiety. In other words the more reassurance you seek the less you will find and this behaviour just serves to compound your health problems.
How do you know if you are a cyberchondriac? Here are the five tell-tale signs:
- Your fear is around having not just one but several different diseases
- You search the internet for information about your symptoms for more than an hour each day.
- You keep checking, and even though the results don’t change you check your symptoms online again and again.
- You check to find reassurance but actually looking online makes you feel more anxious.
- You are in good general health, and are less likely to be ill than someone without health anxiety or cyberchondria.
What should you do if this sounds like you?
As obvious as it sounds you have to find a way of stopping yourself from checking your symptoms on line. And, as counterintuitive as this sounds, starting to really look after your health is the single best way of combatting health anxiety and cyberchondria. If you are relaxed, rested and fulfilled there will be much less space in your life for health anxiety.
Recent research from Imperial College London and King’s College London showed that psychotherapy can reduce health anxiety and suggested that it should be on offer in all hospitals. Our counsellors report that their patients with health anxiety often find that this has been caused by previous health scares, and most commonly occurs in people who felt not truly cared for in their early lives by their primary carers.
If you have health anxiety or cyberchrondria we have experienced psychotherapists and counsellors who will be able to help. Call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]