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What is health anxiety?

Patricia Cowan
Healthline Nurse Adviser at Bupa
15 February 2022
Next review due February 2025

Health anxiety is when you constantly worry about being ill or becoming ill. It’s characterised by an intense fear of illness, which can be debilitating and take over your life.

Here, I discuss what causes health anxiety and ways to manage it if you, or a loved one, has it.

How common is health anxiety?

Anyone can have health anxiety. But it’s thought that it’s becoming more common because of the amount of time people spread browsing the internet and the pandemic.

What are the signs of health anxiety?

When you have health anxiety, you think that harmless physical symptoms are signs of serious disease.

For example, if you’re feeling stressed, your chest may feel tight, and your breathing might get faster. These are normal physical reactions to stress. But if you suffer with health anxiety, you may believe you’re having a heart attack.

If you have health anxiety you may:

  • feel constantly preoccupied with having a serious illness
  • constantly worry about your health
  • regularly look at health information online, researching symptoms and trying to find a diagnosis
  • constantly need reassurance from your GP, friends and family that you’re not ill

 

What causes health anxiety?

The COVID-19 pandemic may have played a part in increasing health anxiety. And having so much health information readily available at the touch of a button isn’t always helpful.

If you have health anxiety you might fear getting a severe illness, such as cancer or dementia, rather than common, milder conditions, such as a cold. You might find you research a severe illness when you have mild symptoms, leading to a fear that you have it. You might then focus on health information about your feared diagnosis.

Managing health anxiety

Mindfulness and meditation

Research shows that taking time out to unwind and calm our thoughts can have a positive effect on our health and wellbeing. Practising mindfulness and breathing techniques are both great ways to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.

The video below shows four calming breathing exercises that only take a few minutes to do. They are based on an ancient yoga practice called pranayama. It involves controlling your breath and can help to reduce stress and anxiety.

 

Keep a diary

Keep a diary and note down things to do with your health and worries. You could include:

  • what you notice in your body
  • if and when you ask for reassurance from people
  • how often you check your body
  • what health information you look at and for how long
  • anything that triggers feelings of worry or anxiety about your health

 

Keeping a diary can help you notice patterns of behaviour. This may help you rationalise them (put into perspective) and reduce them.

Reduce the time you spend looking for reassurance

It’s important to seek medical advice from time to time. But repeatedly looking for reassurance or information about your symptoms can be unhelpful. In fact, spending too much time looking at information can make you more convinced you have a physical illness.

Try to reduce how often you seek reassurance. Instead, build-up a sense of confidence in your own wellbeing. Create space for more positivity in your life.

Every time you have the urge to go on the internet, distract yourself or do something you enjoy. Make a cup of tea, call a friend or go for a brisk walk, if you can. Other things that may help include the following.

  • Put your phone or tablet away during times of feeling anxious.
  • Keep devices out of your bedroom so you’re not tempted to search online during the evening or if you wake at night.
  • Avoid TV shows about medical emergencies or illness, as these may trigger feelings of worry.
  • Focus on something you get enjoyment from, such as drawing, exercise, cooking or baking.
  •  

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

    CBT is a type of talking therapy that can help to improve your mental health. It aims to change negative thoughts and beliefs you may have that can affect how you feel and behave.

    CBT is an effective treatment for any form of anxiety, including health anxiety. Your therapist may help you explore the reasons why you first developed health anxiety. For example, if it began when a friend or family member suddenly became ill.

    Learn more about how CBT works in our animation.

 

Ask for help

Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member. It can be helpful to confront your thoughts and talk them through with someone.

Seeing a therapist can also help you work through thoughts and emotions around your health. This will help you control and reduce your health anxiety.


If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. If you’re covered by your health insurance, you’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

Patricia Cowan
Patricia Cowan
Healthline Nurse Adviser at Bupa

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    • Lebel S, Mutsaers B, Tomei C, et al. Health anxiety and illness-related fears across diverse chronic illnesses: A systematic review on conceptualization, measurement, prevalence, course, and correlates. PLoS One 2020; 15(7):e0234124. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0234124
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    • Zaccaro A, et al. How breath-control can change your life: a systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Front Hum Neurosci 2018. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353
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    • CBT | therapy worth talking about. British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP). babcp.com, last reviewed 4 February 2021

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