Illness anxiety disorder is a mental health condition where a person feels constant worry that they have or may develop a serious illness.
A person experiencing illness anxiety disorder may have no somatic (physical) symptoms at all, or if they do, they are only mild in intensity. Their medical doctor is unable to assure them that they do not have an illness despite examination and testing.
If untreated, illness anxiety disorder can become severe and lead a person to become so preoccupied with the idea of being unwell, that it can interfere with their daily life. If it becomes this severe, a doctor may change the diagnosis to somatic symptom disorder.
This article explores the symptoms of illness anxiety disorder, how it differs from being health conscious, and what treatments are available for the condition.
Fast facts on severe illness anxiety disorder:
- Experiencing illness anxiety disorder is different from being health conscious.
- If a person is experiencing the symptoms of illness anxiety, they should speak to a doctor.
- Often, a person will not seek out the services of a doctor as they fear being diagnosed with an illness.
- It can be distressing for a person with illness anxiety disorder to believe that they are unwell.
- A person experiencing it may be referred to psychological therapy or medication.
What is illness anxiety disorder?
Illness anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that is different from being health conscious.
It is an anxiety disorder where a person has a persistent preoccupation that they may be developing a serious illness or may already be very unwell.
When a person has this type of anxiety, they may misinterpret natural changes in their body as symptoms of an illness. Things that might be misinterpreted could include changes in:
- patterns of breathing
- heart rate
- muscle tone
What makes the condition more confusing for those experiencing it, and those trying to diagnose it is that anxiety itself can cause physical symptoms. Anxiety can cause panic attacks, and symptoms may include:
- chest pains
- feeling shaky
- heart palpitations
- trouble breathing
- feeling faint
A person experiencing illness anxiety disorder may misinterpret these physical symptoms of anxiety as further evidence that they are seriously unwell.
Health conscious or illness anxiety disorder?
It is normal for a person to want to stay healthy and to research a condition if they experience a change in their body that concerns them. It is good to be aware of the signs and symptoms of different medical conditions and to speak to a doctor about any concerns.
Similarly, a health conscious person will make an appointment to see their doctor when they do have signs or symptoms of illness. The person with illness anxiety disorder often avoids doctors as they fear diagnosis. This is sometimes referred to as “care-avoidant type” of illness anxiety disorder.
A health-conscious person will usually be reassured once a doctor has checked their symptoms thoroughly and confirmed that they are not unwell.
In contrast, a person experiencing illness anxiety disorder is likely to continue to experience anxiety about being physically ill despite a doctor reassuring them that they are not.
In the case of severe illness anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent and do not remit.
Symptoms of illness anxiety disorder
A symptom of illness anxiety disorder may be overestimating the chance of being affected by a health scare reported in the news.
A person experiencing illness anxiety disorder may exhibit a range of different behaviors and feelings. These include:
- Misinterpreting everyday changes in the body as symptoms of an illness.
- Misinterpreting physical signs of anxiety as symptoms of an illness (somatic symptom disorder).
- Overestimating the likelihood of being affected by health scares reported in the news or by a condition that may have affected a relative.
- Being preoccupied with the thought of having a particular condition for at least 6 months.
- Feeling distressed by these thoughts, to the extent this impacts on personal and work relationships.
- Feeling compelled to continue researching conditions and repeatedly checking for symptoms.
- Not believing the diagnosis a doctor gives or when they offer reassurance of good health.
- Continually needing reassurance but not being convinced by this.
Underlying mental health conditions can cause symptoms of illness anxiety disorder or make them worse. These include:
It is also possible for a person who does have a physical illness to experience illness anxiety disorder about the severity or extent of their condition.
In this instance, persistent worry about the condition is causing symptoms of anxiety. These are experienced in addition to the symptoms of their illness.
CBT may be a recommended treatment for illness anxiety disorder.
The following treatments may help:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
In this type of therapy, a therapist helps a person to examine their thought patterns and develop practical ways to change the way these thoughts affect their behavior. A 2006 study notes CBT is an effective treatment for illness anxiety disorder, with a positive long-term effect on the condition.
If illness anxiety disorder is caused by an underlying mental health condition, such as GAD, OCD, or depression, then antidepressants may help to treat symptoms.
There are some things a person with illness anxiety disorder can try to help manage their condition. These include:
Trying to limit the number of times they check for symptoms each day can help a person with illness anxiety disorder to limit the impact this has on their daily activities. Writing down a goal and gradually making this more ambitious each time they achieve it may help.
Limit time spent on devices
Whenever a person with illness anxiety disorder picks up their phone or uses a laptop, it may be tempting for them to research symptoms. Doing so can increase their anxiety about illnesses they believe they might have. Trying to limit the amount of time spent on devices can help a person avoid doing this.
Avoid reading medication packets or leaflets more than once
It is always a good idea to read about the side effects medication may have, but a person with illness anxiety disorder can focus on this too much. Only reading lists of side effects once can help prevent these fueling health concerns.
Regular exercise and relaxation
As with any mental health condition, regular exercise and relaxing activities, such as yoga, may help. These activities can help to release endorphins, which promote a sense of calm and may reduce anxiety.
Read self-help materials
A 2002 study found that reading self-help materials about illness anxiety disorder, alongside CBT might help reduce symptoms of illness anxiety disorder.
Fortunately, the condition is treatable with a range of highly effective interventions, according to the BMJ.
If a person thinks they could have illness anxiety disorder that is becoming severe, or a doctor suggests this could be the case, it is essential for them to get a full diagnosis.
Once a doctor has diagnosed illness anxiety disorder, a person should follow the treatment plan their doctor gives them. If they do so, their symptoms are likely to reduce.
Following the self-management tips explored above may also help reduce the impact illness anxiety disorder may have on a person’s life.