Health Anxiety

Anxiety about physical health is not uncommon, especially in the era of a global pandemic. However, some people can become preoccupied with physical (also known as somatic) symptoms to the point that it impairs daily functioning. Somatic symptom and related disorders involve pre-occupation with physical health and physical symptoms. It is important to acknowledge that the physical symptoms associated with these diagnoses are very often real and associated with a medical diagnosis. Treatment for these types of disorders focuses on understanding the physical symptoms and responding to them in a way that allows the patient to live a meaningful life.

Somatic Symptom Disorder

Individuals with somatic symptom disorder typically have multiple, current, physical symptoms that are distressing or that significantly disrupt daily life. Sometimes, these symptoms represent normal bodily sensations or discomfort that does not signify a serious disease, or a doctor may have determined that, while real, the symptom is not medically dangerous. Nevertheless, the patient’s suffering is authentic.

Symptoms may include:

  • One or more physical symptoms that are distressing and/or disrupt daily life
  • Persistent thoughts about the seriousness of one’s symptoms
  • High levels of anxiety about health or symptoms
  • Excessive time and energy devoted to these symptoms of health concerns
Illness Anxiety Disorder

Individuals with illness anxiety disorder do not currently have a serious illness but are pre-occupied with the concern that they may be diagnosed with one. Illness concerns assume a prominent place in the person’s life, affecting daily life and causing significant distress. Some mild physical symptoms may be present, although sometimes a person may have no physical symptoms and still feel very anxious about becoming ill. Individuals with illness anxiety disorder do not feel reassured when they receive negative diagnostic tests.

Symptoms may include:

  • Preoccupation with acquiring a serious illness
  • High level of anxiety about health, and person is easily alarmed about personal health status
  • Person performs excessive health-related checks (e.g., checking body for signs of illness, spending significant time googling symptoms or attending doctor appointments)
  • Individuals might also avoid doctor appointments and hospitals, even when visits are warranted

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References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596