Raise your hand if you’ve spent one too many late nights scrolling through the vastness of the internet, comparing your weird (probably not cancerous but maybe cancerous) mole to the “bad” ones glowing threateningly from your screen. Your heart thumping, beads of sweat popping up on your forehead as you’re suddenly convinced that this is it — this mole is how you go.
No … just me?
Well, suppose you do tend to work up a worried sweat over things that could possibly be wrong with your health. In that case, you may be dealing with illness anxiety disorder (IAD), aka health anxiety, aka hypochondriasis.
The signs and symptoms of illness anxiety disorder
If you're experiencing illness anxiety disorder, you simply can’t stop worrying about being seriously unwell — even if you aren’t experiencing any physical symptoms. Or you might think that normal body sensations (like twitchy muscles, tiredness or minor rashes) are a sign that something is gravely wrong.
“People with illness anxiety disorder are highly aware of physical sensations in their body and are sensitive to changes in how they feel physically,” says Angela Fang, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington. “They tend to misinterpret physical signs as an indicator of having a serious illness and develop beliefs about what physical feelings mean.”
While it’s true that everyone can get a little paranoid about their strange body sensations sometimes, there are other signs that you might be experiencing illness anxiety disorder. Some common ones include:
- Worrying constantly about having serious health conditions
- Being easily alarmed about your health status
- Feeling little reassurance from doctor visits or good test results
- Repeatedly checking yourself for signs of health problems (taking temperature, blood pressure, etc.)
- Becoming so anxious that it’s affecting other aspects of your life
- Avoiding medical care or making endless appointments for reassurance
- Talking about your health “issues” a lot and seeking reassurance from loved ones
- Perusing the internet endlessly for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses
And to be fair, some people struggling with illness anxiety disorder may actually have a diagnosed physical illness, but they may think it’s much more severe or dire than it really is, thanks to the way their mind works.
Health anxiety vs. “regular” anxiety — what gives?
There are a plethora of anxiety disorders that people experience, ranging from generalized anxiety disorder to panic disorder to social anxiety disorder to many phobia-related disorders.
Illness anxiety disorder is similar to other conditions but focuses on a person’s health (hence the name). So instead of freaking out about your upcoming presentation, an impending plane ride or getting too close to a creepy eight-legged friend, you’re spending time (and energy) obsessing about that tiny rash on your foot or the tickle in your throat that you just know spells doom.
Another interesting thing about this disorder? People dealing with it generally fit into one of two categories:
Care-seeking: These folks spend a lot of time getting their concerns checked out — which can be taxing on the other aspects of their life and the people in it. They want all the tests and all the specialists, hoping to find the reassurance that will finally make them feel at peace.
Care-avoidant: These people avoid doctors and medical care like the plague — either because they don’t trust the doctors or they don’t believe that their symptoms are being taken seriously (otherwise known as “medical gaslighting”), which can cause them even more anxiety.
Searching for a reason
The jury is still out when it comes to the cause of illness anxiety disorder.
Fang explains that while it’s still unclear what causes the condition, many theories suggest that the “checking” behavior that comes with the problem is a big part of the issue. People with illness anxiety disorder use checking as a way to regulate negative emotions caused by thoughts about having an illness and also as a way to reduce uncertainty.
“This makes illness anxiety disorder function very similarly to OCD,” says Fang. “Research would suggest that an anxious temperament, related to behavioral inhibition or anxiety sensitivity early on in life, might set the stage for developing anxiety-related disorders, including illness anxiety.”
For the most part, illness anxiety disorder seems to begin in the early or middle part of adulthood and can often worsen with age. Though we don’t have hard and fast answers, the following things may be some risk factors for developing the disorder:
Having a serious illness as a child, or having a parent with a serious illness
Spending a lot of time researching symptoms and diseases
Coming from a family that always worried about your health (or their own health)
Having another mental illness like another anxiety disorder or depression
Misinterpreting all body sensations (even the normal ones) as serious or evidence of illness
Being uncomfortable with everyday changes in body sensations
Straight from the doctor’s mouth
You would think that all of this could be solved by a simple visit to the doctor and reassurance from a medical professional that nothing is seriously amiss, right? Especially after examinations and lab tests are done, if needed.
Unfortunately, illness anxiety disorder doesn’t usually work that way.
Explains Fang, “Reassurance from doctors doesn’t help, in the same way that checking one’s body doesn’t help, because the fundamental problem is about being intolerant of uncertainty or not being able to tolerate negative emotions related to the distressing belief about being or becoming sick.”
Plus, even if one health problem seems to be resolved, it’s usually only a matter of time before another one to obsess over pops up.
This condition can also have a negative effect on your relationships (no one wants to hear about your myriad of possible diseases every time you hang out), your career (you’re out of the office often due to never-ending doctor visits) and your mind (since your health is all you can think about). This is why it’s imperative to get help.
Moving forward with less fear
Though there isn’t a “cure” per se for this disorder, there are ways to manage your overwhelming and anxious feelings.
The first step is speaking to your regular doctor about your concerns and your anxiety. They should then be able to refer you to a mental health professional who can help you manage your anxiety through regular care and visits.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to treat illness anxiety disorder because it encourages you to talk through your fears and anxieties with a psychologist or psychiatrist. According to Fang, it can also help you identify and approach challenging situations (like going to a doctor’s appointment or having tests done) — helping you figure out new and useful ways to cope with those overwhelming feelings.
Your doctor might also suggest taking antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or other mood and anxiety medications to help you manage your feelings and anxieties. Just make sure to speak with your doctor about all of your options and any side effects that might accompany them.
Another tip from the experts? Don’t spend too much time perusing the internet and researching every scary disease (and symptom) that you can imagine. It’s always best to go to an actual doctor rather than trusting Dr. Google to offer up a diagnosis.
There’s also much to be said for the calming effects of activities like meditation, especially since it’s shown to decrease emotional reactivity, stress, anxiety and depression.
Other stress-busting tips like getting outside and moving your body can also be helpful when it comes to managing your feelings and emotions.
And remember, conditions like illness anxiety disorder are nothing to be ashamed of, so reaching out to your doctor for information and assistance is the way to start healing — even if it’s your mind, not the rest of your body, that needs it.