Answer the following with a yes or no:
Q. Do you think it must be awful to have a long-term illness?
Q. Do you think you would find it hard to cope with an illness?
Q. Do you talk a lot about physical concerns to friends or family?
Q. Do you often check your body for any sign of changes?
Q. Do you frequently use the internet, or other sources to look up information about symptoms or diseases?
If you have answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may have issues with health anxiety. But before we go any further lets take a look at what health anxiety is about.
First, let me be clear that it is perfectly normal to have concerns about health. After all, it is concerns about ill health that often provides us the impetus to stop smoking, take more exercise and eat more healthily. So the few questions you’ve just attempted are in no way intended as a scientific assessment, they merely reflect typical concerns of people with health anxiety.
Very often there is often no particular illness, disorder or disease that people with health anxiety fret over. This is a bit of a generalization of course because personal circumstances do vary greatly. People with a family history of say heart disease or cancer may find their fears tip in that particular direction, for example.
A more accurate profile of a health anxiety sufferer would include a persistent level of concern over health issues that have lasted over six months. These worries will also have caused significant levels of distress but will have been out of proportion to the realistic chances of having a serious medical problem. Perhaps the most telling characteristic is a persistent level of concern despite all professional reassurance and tests that have pointed to a negative outcome.
Another dimension to health anxiety is the fact that some people focus on a loved one or perhaps their children as the main source of their own health anxiety. Every mole becomes a possible skin cancer and every tummy upset a potential burst ulcer or appendicitis.
Health anxiety has negative effects on the lives of people it touches and this is something I’ll be exploring later.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.