Most of us worry about our health from time to time, and some of us have to manage serious medical conditions, but for some people, health worries become overwhelming and a problem in itself.

Hypochondria (health anxiety) is excessive worrying about your health, to the point where it causes great distress and affects your everyday life.

Some people with health anxiety have a medical condition, which they worry about excessively. Others have medically unexplained symptoms, such as chest pain or headaches, which they are concerned may be a sign of a serious illness, despite the doctor's reassurance.

Others may be permanently anxious about their future health, worrying about things like: "What if I get cancer or heart disease?"

 

What causes health anxiety?

There are many reasons why someone worries too much about their health.

You may be going through a particularly stressful period of your life. There may have been illness or death in your family, or another family member may have worried a lot about your health when you were young.

Personality can be a factor. You may be vulnerable to health anxiety because you are a worrier generally. You may find it difficult to handle emotions and conflict, and tend to ‘catastrophise’ when faced with problems in your life.

Sometimes, health anxiety can be a symptom of a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety disorder, which needs recognising and treating in its own right (see below).

 

Types of health anxiety

People with health anxiety can fall into one of two extremes:

  • Constantly seeking information and reassurance – for example, obsessively researching illnesses from the internet, booking frequent GP appointments, and having frequent tests that don't find any problems.
  • Avoidant behaviour – avoiding medical TV programmes, GP appointments and anything else that might trigger the anxiety, and avoiding activities such as exercise that are perceived to make the condition worse.

Neither of these behaviours are helpful, and need addressing if you are to break the vicious circle of health anxiety.