The technical term for health anxiety is 'hypochondria'. However I prefer to use the term health anxiety because the word 'hypochondriac' is often used in an informal and derogatory way by members of the public. Health anxiety, is a genuine, distressing, yet treatable condition suffered by many people. It's estimated that around 5% of the general population suffer from health anxiety, however I believe that number to be much higher. As far as we know, human beings are the only species capable of contemplating their own demise from the safety of their armchair! This amazing feature of our brain means that to a greater or lesser extent we all experience health anxiety. The degree of it's severity is however modulated by a number of potential issues.
"As far as we know, human beings are the only species capable of contemplating their own demise from the safety of their armchair! This amazing feature of our brain means that to a greater or lesser extent we all experience health anxiety."
1) General Anxiety - Individuals who experience generally high levels of anxiety can be prone to health anxiety. The health anxiety is resolved once the underlying anxiety issues have been treated.
2) OCD - Individuals who suffer from OCD or from a high level of obsessive thinking can also be prone to health anxiety, again, once the underlying issue is resolved the health anxiety typically abates.
3) Stress - Various experiences can cause our body's stress response to get stuck in a stress cycle leading to usual physical sensations. People suffering from health anxiety may experience strange bodily effects which doctors can find no physical basis for. Also, in times of high stress people may become more anxious about their health.
4) Loneliness - Perhaps the least recognised cause of health anxiety can be loneliness. As a social species relationships and connections with other people are an integral part of how we regulate out nervous systems and feel safe in the world and in ourselves. Loneliness, which is unfortunately so common in society, can be a major trigger for heath anxiety.
5) Auto-suggestion - Auto-suggestion is a little understood psychological phenomenon in which the brain can create an experience of something that isn't actually occurring. Stage hypnotists understand how to create the conditions through which this phenomenon can be used for comic effect, however the very same conditions can occur naturally in our day-to-day lives without us being aware of it, leading to the experience of symptoms and sensations that have no physical basis.
6) A History of Illness - Health anxiety can also arise if you've experienced significant illness in the past, or if illness is prevalent within your family. Alternatively sufferers may have experienced the death of a loved one at a significant time in their development
As you can see, far from being a case of "it's all in your head", there are often complex biopsychosocial causes of health anxiety, and sufferers of health anxiety experience symptoms that are highly distressing and very real. Often health anxiety results from a complex combination of two or more of the factors mention above.
Health anxiety is a problem we can all experience from time to time. In some cases the anxiety or symptoms naturally fade away, while in other cases they persist. Understandably many people struggling with health anxiety are unsure about the prospect of consulting a therapist. After all, the root of the problem appears to be physical and it seems logical that you should be consulting a doctor. In fact, most individuals suffering from health anxiety usually only come to an awareness that they may be experiencing a psychological issue when the doctor's tests and examinations routinely come up clear. Even then - and perfectly understandable - the notion that your symptoms might have a psychological basis can be difficult to accept.
"Understandably many people struggling with health anxiety are unsure about the prospect of consulting a therapist. After all, the root of the problem appears to be physical and it seems logical that you should be consulting a doctor."
Not only does the problem feel physical, but people naturally don't like to think of themselves as experiencing a psychological or emotional difficulty. One reason being that people tend to think that a problem with their body is purely mechanical, whereas a psychological issue might represent a defect in their character. Allow me to reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Strange as it may seem, many psychological, emotional, or behavioural issues that people experience are similarly mechanical in nature, and stem from our innate, unconscious, self-protective survival instincts. Hence why we can have difficulty being aware of, and understanding, such issues by ourselves.
For more information about how all this stuff works I invite you to check out my Sequential Psychotherapy website which explains the complex relationship between your mind and body in an easy-to-understand way. If you're looking for help to overcome health anxiety why don't you get in touch to book your FREE initial consultation and join me at The Bristol Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy Clinic or online via Skype for a friendly chat about what you've been experiencing and from there we'll discuss a way forward for the treatment of your symptoms.