What Causes Health Anxiety?
When a person experiences persistently high levels of anxiety, usually for six months or longer, and the focus of this anxiety is on their own or a loved one’s health, they may be suffering from health anxiety. A feature of health anxiety is that it often exists in the face of evidence that suggests nothing is wrong. So how does it develop in the first place?
Current thinking tends to point to one of three possibilities, although to some extent these may overlap and support one another. The first relates to our own development. Imagine growing up in a household where chronic pain or illness is a central issue. In such a context it’s easy to see how illness can be regarded as something permanent, disabling, painful and possibly even progressive and degenerative. Watching adults struggle with daily living isn’t an easy thing for a child or adolescent to cope with and could, so the argument goes, contribute to how we learn to view and respond to illness.
A second possibility is genetic vulnerability. Various lines of research continue to explore the relationship between anxiety (not just health anxiety) and genes. Genetic mapping certainly points to associations between genes and anxiety. In other words it seems quite reasonable to suggest that we are born with greater or lesser sensitivity to things that make people anxious. Of course our personality and our environment could influence the way genetic vulnerability actually affects us.
Thirdly, we should consider the effect of the internet and the media. We generally like to consider ourselves astute enough to understand the way the media works but its influence is still profound. Media outlets often tend towards the sensationalizing of stories. These stories grab our attention and they tap our vulnerabilities. If we add the influence of the internet it’s possible to see how anxieties can develop. The term cyberchondriac is sometimes used to describe the person who seeks medical information on the web. The results of one Microsoft study pointed out that search engines can’t discriminate between minor or major symptoms. The search term ‘headache’