What is health anxiety?
Feeling anxious about our health is something we all experience from time to time. This is usually resolved quickly after seeking appropriate advice. However, Health anxiety is characterised by a constant worry about health, with difficulty ignoring thoughts or doubts about illness and a strong belief that developing a serious physical illness is likely, and that the consequences of being physically ill will be severe. Due to the intense worries about health, people may ask for reassurance from medical professionals, family and friends, and online, and frequently check themselves for physical symptoms. Despite this, people can remain convinced that they are seriously unwell and that medical professionals have missed something. This focus on the worries and any physical symptoms can generate more worries and maintain a focus on ill health.
People experiencing health anxiety may have had their concerns dismissed by others, or may have had the experience of a medical problem being misdiagnosed or missed. Sometimes people are so anxious about their health that they avoid routine screening or specialist health appointments. Health anxiety can have a severe impact on people’s lives and can often affect day to day life in subtle but significant ways.
Health anxiety is estimated to affect 0.2-8% of the population. In the past this problem has been referred to as hypochondriasis.
Can treatment help?
The evidence-based treatment for health anxiety is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
Whilst brief focused CBT may be effective, a longer or more intensive course of treatment may be required to address these difficulties.
Aims of treatment
An assessment at OHSPIC will include use of standardised questionnaires that assess the severity of the problem, how it impacts on daily life, what thoughts and beliefs are associated with the problem, and an assessment of other difficulties.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) at OHSPIC includes:
• Establishing a strong, collaborative relationship between the person experiencing health anxiety and the therapist
• Building a comprehensive shared understanding of the problem with a focus on what is maintaining the strong conviction that a serious illness is present
• Exploring ways to make changes to e.g. reassurance-seeking and checking for symptoms, and how to go about day to day life without a frightening preoccupation with illness
• Planning activities to restart a less anxious, less restricted life and work towards longer-term goals.
OHPSIC will liaise with local teams to ensure that the work on overcoming this anxiety can successfully continue, including offering joint work and supervision. Sessions outside the clinic will be included and encouraged as part of joint work with local teams.