Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Health Anxiety

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • You want to stay healthy. You may eat a good, balanced diet, exercise each day and a good night’s sleep each night. You may understand your body and visit the doctor when something isn’t right. But for some people, worry and preoccupation about their health takes over their lives.


    According to Jerry Kennard, a Health Central expert, “Health anxiety affects how people think, feel and behave. The most obvious symptoms are worrying about health when there is no medical reason and seeking reassurance from people around you that everything is fine. Some people with health anxiety spend a lot of time reading, listening to or watching programs about health and illness. Others may spend time examining their body, worrying about little bumps and bruises and noticing bodily sensations.”

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    Those with health anxiety may go to the doctor, over and over, needing reassurance that nothing is wrong. Each time they may complain about a new symptom, for example, a headache may signal a brain tumor, a stomach ache may indicate stomach cancer. Many with health anxiety imagine the worse, sure that the illness or disease will continue to worsen and frustrated that no one will listen or take them seriously. Worries about health can cause “great distress and affect your ability to function properly.” [1]


    According to researchers of a study completed in the UK and published in The Lancet, between 10 and 20 percent of hospital patients suffer from  health anxiety. Many anxiety disorders are treated with psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). The researchers wanted to determine if this treatment was effective for health anxiety as well.


    Scientists looked at 444 patients, ranging in age from 16 to 75 years old. About one-half of the patients (219) receiving 5 to 10 sessions of CBT and the others (225 patients) received standard care. Researchers then followed participants for a two year period of time, looking at health anxiety, generalized anxiety, depression, social function, quality of life and health costs.


    After one year, twice as many of those receiving CBT had normal levels of health anxiety. About 14 percent of those compared to  seven percent of those who received standard care. Those who receive CBT also showed improvement in generalized anxiety and depression. At the two year follow up, those who had improved maintained the gains.


    The most interesting part of this study is who performed the CBT. For the study, non-CBT experts were trained in two workshops and were supervised by CBT therapists (at two to four week intervals) performed the treatment. This greatly reduces the cost of receiving CBT therapy.  According to Professor Peter Tyrer, lead author of the study, “Our results indicate the CBT for health anxiety is relatively cheap and can be delivered by general nurses with minimal training.” [1]


    Some experts don’t agree that this type of stand-alone therapy is best. Chris Williams, University of Glasgow, and Allan House, University of Leeds, both find the results intriguing, however, are concerned that other problems, such as alcohol use, poor treatment adherence and depression are not being treated properly. These types of problems are all common in those with health anxiety, according to Williams and Leeds. Treatment needs to be comprehensive and provided by those who can “deal with the full range of problems.” [2]


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    [1] [2] “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy ‘Effective’ For Health Anxiety,” 2013, Oct. 19, Honor Whiteman, Medical News Today

Published On: October 20, 2013