Stressing about your health and analysing every slight change in how you feel, in the middle of a global health crisis, is incredibly normal. But if worries about your health have become all consuming, to the point where they are taking over your life, then that's something different – and may mean that you're dealing with illness anxiety disorder.
Worried that this could be affecting you? To get you clued up on the condition, we spoke with Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan to find out more.
If you're worried about your mental health, speak to your GP. You can also call the Anxiety UK helpline on 03444 775774
What is illness anxiety disorder?
Sometimes known as health anxiety, illness anxiety disorder can be debilitating in its own right, leaving you unable to focus on the positives in your daily life.
"Formerly known as hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder is characterised by excessive worry about health symptoms and a fear that you are becoming seriously ill," confirms Dr Brewer.
You may be overly concerned by a specific system, such as the digestive system, or your symptoms may flit around the body. While illness anxiety disorder tends not to be accompanied by real physical symptoms (rather, it’s the fear of them), those who do suffer with physical symptoms may be experiencing somatic symptom disorder.
What is somatic symptom disorder?
"Somatic symptom disorder is a condition that’s closely related to illness anxiety disorder, in which someone focuses on particular symptoms, such as pain or dizziness, and how these affect them, rather than fearing they have a specific illness," explains Dr Brewer.
The cause of these symptoms may or may not be traceable to a specific problem, but either way, the symptoms are real and can be highly distressing.
Signs and symptoms of illness anxiety disorder
Concerned you may have illness anxiety disorder? Dr Brewer says the signs and symptoms include:
Focusing excessively on your health
Worrying that normal physical sensations (such as those caused by stress) are a sign of a serious medical condition
Multiple symptoms that may flit around the body
Constantly searching the Internet for possible diagnoses
Talking about your health regularly and, when people ask how you are, giving full details of symptoms and possible illnesses
Making regular GP appointments and requesting frequent medical tests
Signs of anxiety, including a racing pulse, muscle twitching, difficulty sleeping and fatigue
Of course, we are currently living through unprecedented times: could the global coronavirus pandemic exacerbate illness anxiety disorder, and even prompt health anxiety in those who don’t normally suffer? Dr Brewer believes so.
"Times of stress can bring on anxiety about health in some people," she says. "With the news about coronavirus constantly on our screens, it’s only natural to worry that a cough or sniffle could mean you are infected."
For someone with illness anxiety disorder, this could be highly traumatic.
How is illness anxiety disorder diagnosed?
If you recognise the signs and symptoms (above), and feel anxiety about your health is starting to take over your life, it’s important to make an appointment with your GP to discuss this with them.
"Your GP may diagnose illness anxiety disorder if a careful evaluation suggests you are physically healthy, but are worrying excessively about your health," says Dr Brewer. "In this case, they may refer you to a mental health professional for a psychological assessment."
How is it treated?
Formal treatment for illness anxiety disorder is available in the form of psychological therapies.
"Psychological treatments include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps you view symptoms in a different way and changes how you respond," explains Dr Brewer. "In some cases, antidepressants may be recommended, to help normalise brain chemistry and reduce anxiety."
However, there are lots of self-help tips you can try at home to help lessen your anxiety. These include:
Mindfulness is the art of focusing your attention on the present moment. The next time you notice worries about your health arise, pause for a moment and notice your surroundings: what can you see and hear? Grounding yourself in this way can help to calm your mind and stop the spiral of anxious thoughts.
Focus on your breath
In the same way that focusing on your surroundings can help you feel grounded, so too concentrating on the gentle rhythm of your breath can create a sense of peace and calm within the mind. Focus on inhaling slowly, then exhaling deeply for a count of ten.
Keep a diary
Journalling your thoughts and fears can be cathartic, and can also help you notice patterns in your thinking. Keep a note of your thoughts and feelings. Are they rational? Make a note of how often you check for signs of illness or search online for health issues. By noticing the habit, you can consciously start to reduce the time you spend doing these things.
Try physical exercise
"Physical exercise helps to burn off the effects of stress hormones," says Dr Brewer.
It also helps to generate endorphins – the feel-good hormone – in your body, making you feel happier, more resilient and better able to cope.
Consider herbal supplements
Some herbal supplements can help to lessen anxiety.
"Cannabidiol (CBD) can help to reduce anxiety through effects on the body's own endocannabinoid system," reveals Dr Brewer. "It can help to reduce overanxious thoughts, muscle tension and restlessness, as well as helping you sleep better. The key is to buy from a reputable manufacturer and start slowly. Also, if you are taking any other medication, check with your doctor first, as interactions can occur."
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