Do you worry that every headache is a brain tumor? Fret about having a heart attack, even when you have no symptoms?
If so, there’s a chance you might be worrying yourself sick. According to research published in November 2016 by BMJ Open, being one of the “worried well” doesn’t really do your health any good.
The symptoms of hypochondria—persistent unrealistic worry or conviction about having an illness—can drive people to repeatedly seek medical care because they misinterpret normal body sensations as signs of serious illness.
People with severe health-anxiety symptoms may be diagnosed with "illness anxiety disorder" (another name for hypochondria), which can cause significant chronic distress. Patients with illness anxiety disorder often have no symptoms but excessively worry that something may be physically wrong.
How your mind can affect your body
Anxiety has been associated with an increase in heart risks, so researchers in Norway attempted to uncover any tie between hypochondria and heart-disease development.
The researchers assessed health-anxiety levels in more than 7,000 people born between 1953 and 1957 and tracked their heart health and any health anxiety they reported from 1997 to 2009.
Six percent of people who had significantly high health-anxiety levels developed heart disease within 12 years, compared with 3 percent of people with no health anxiety who developed heart disease. As anxiety levels rose, the subjects were more likely to experience heart problems.
While the reasons for the doubling of heart problems in the anxious group aren’t clear, the researchers suggest that constantly being in a state of alertness for new symptoms might put a physical strain on the body.
Another possible contributing factor: People who reported worrying about their health tended to exercise less than those with no anxiety, possibly because they were afraid that the strain of exercise might harm their bodies.
Signs that you may have health anxiety
This study suggests that being overly attentive to health matters actually leads to worse health instead of early detection of problems. Almost everyone worries about his or her health sometimes. But certain traits can put you at risk for more serious health anxiety, especially if they last longer than six months. These traits include:
• Being preoccupied with thoughts of having or getting a serious illness or excessively worrying about symptoms that are mild or don’t exist despite a clean bill of health and reassurance from your doctor
• Overreacting to minor health issues
• Monitoring vital signs, such as blood pressure, several times a day
• Frequently seeking medical care and tests for health concerns and complaints or avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with an illness
If you worry excessively about your health, talk with your doctor, who may refer you to a mental health specialist.
The first line of treatment is customarily a type of psychotherapy or mental health counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Antidepressant medications are also effective against anxiety and may be prescribed, but they haven’t been studied to treat this condition.