ADVICE

Could you be suffering from health anxiety?

Searching symptoms on the computer

What’s the difference between keeping a watchful eye on symptoms and being so worried that your quality of life is affected? UK GP Dawn Harper asks the questions that will help you manage health anxiety.

Feeling concerned about a new symptom or unexplained pain is normal. For some people, though, worrying about a potentially serious illness can take over their life and affect its quality. The term for this is health anxiety – and it’s more common than you may think. Experts say it could affect as many as one in five of us at some point in our lives.

We shouldn’t, of course, be blasé about our health. We are, after all, constantly reminded of the importance of not ignoring symptoms such as a lump in the breast, blood in our wee or poo, or a changing mole – and rightly so, as such symptoms could be caused by cancers and the earlier cancer is detected anywhere in the body, the better the outlook. On the one hand we encourage people to come to see us early, but on the other we need to manage health anxiety, as it’s expensive financially, emotionally and socially.

So where do we draw the line between concern and anxiety? Here are my top tips on recognising if you could be one of the ‘worried well’.

Do you see your GP more frequently than most?

The average member of the public sees their family doctor six times a year. That’s twice as often as just a decade ago – and, to be fair, many of the appointments are made because we proactively call patients in for health checks. If you have a chronic condition you may need to see a member of your healthcare team more frequently. But if not, and you’re visiting your practice significantly more often than this, you may be developing health anxiety.

Are you spending lots of time online googling symptoms?

We’ve never had better access to health information and the internet is full of excellent and reliable advice. Most of us will look up the occasional symptom or diagnosis, but if you’re flitting from one symptom to another, the internet can be an unhealthy place. I rarely do a surgery these days without directing a patient to a good website and

I’ve had lots of patients over the years who have valued the help provided by support groups, but I’m mindful that there’s often a skew towards negative experiences in online forums, which can feed health anxiety. People who have recovered from a problem are unlikely to be staying in, contributing to forums. They’re more likely to be out living life to the full.

Do you only experience temporary relief from reassurance?

A classic sign of health anxiety is feeling relieved by medical reassurance, only to start worrying again very quickly (often within 24 hours).

Do you seek lots of different opinions regarding your symptoms?

Patients with health anxiety often ask different doctors and healthcare professionals the same thing. They may get slightly differing opinions, which can cause confusion and add to anxiety.

If you answered yes to these questions, you may have health anxiety. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll never have a medical disease or diagnosis – many people have both – but it’s important that the anxiety is addressed. That doesn’t necessarily mean tablets, nor does it mean your doctor will dismiss any symptom as part of an anxiety disorder.

You may find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps: it’s an excellent way of helping patients to manage anxiety while still being able to report new symptoms appropriately. Health anxiety can ruin lives and your GP can help, so please have that conversation.

First published: May 2022

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