An Important Reminder about Health Anxiety
By Megan Oser, PhD
It’s normal to be concerned about your health at times. However, there is a difference between general concern about health and health anxiety.
Health anxiety refers to an excessive preoccupation with health and illness and involves thinking or believing there may be a threat to your health. This, in turn, produces an anxiety response.
Health concerns can become a problem when they:
- are excessive and out of proportion to the realistic likelihood of having an actual medical problem
- are persistent despite negative test results and/or reassurance from health care providers
- lead to unhelpful behaviors like excessive checking and reassurance seeking or avoidance of medical visits or health-related information
- cause significant distress or impair day-to-day life
Health anxiety can occur in people with an existing and diagnosed medical condition, those who are experiencing unexplained medical symptoms, or those who are healthy. The issue is not whether the physical symptoms are real. The issue is how one responds to and copes with the symptoms or the condition, particularly if the coping response is inflexible.
People with health anxiety pay closer attention to bodily sensations or changes, noticing things that others typically do not attend to. They misinterpret discomfort and normal bodily sensations as being dangerous. The sensations are real, but the beliefs are mistaken. Focusing on a symptom amplifies the intensity of the symptom which, in turn, increases the worrying and perpetuates the anxiety cycle.
It’s important to know that health anxiety is treatable. Improving your ability to interpret health perceptions accurately, adjusting the way you react and learning to notice heightened attention and vigilance are components of the treatment.
Below are three steps to begin interrupting the hypervigilance and amplification of sensations/symptoms:
- Notice your high sensitivity to bodily sensations: “Here is this (super-sensitive) scanner brain of mine again!”
- Readjust the sensitivity dial: “Okay, so my brain radar is noticing (your physical sensations). I’m thinking the worst about it, but there are other possibilities.”
- Change your focus of attention: Move on, do something else or purposefully redirect your attention elsewhere. There’s no need to struggle with or try and change your thoughts. Just notice them and let them pass.
*This is an article previously published in Beyond the Scope, the newsletter of the UCLA Digestive Diseases Division.
is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral medicine, digital health and gastroenterology/hepatology. She is a faculty member in the Vatche and Tamar Manoukian Division of Digestive Diseases at UCLA and serves as director of Behavioral Medicine in Digestive Health, where she leads the multidisciplinary team in the Integrated Digestive Health and Wellness Program