Health Anxiety

26th June 2023

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Health Anxiety

Over recent weeks, we have seen an increase in health anxiety referrals into Bristol CBT Clinic for Young People.

One young person is anxious that her headaches are a sign that she may have a brain tumour. Another is concerned that he has liver disease and a further client believes that his throat is constricting and that he may suffocate. What is happening for these young people to believe that they are at risk of having a serious health condition? What is keeping these health worries going and how can Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) help?

In a world where health concerns surround us, it’s no wonder that anxiety about our health can sometimes take hold. Health anxiety is a condition characterised by excessive worry and fear of having a serious medical condition, despite minimal or no medical evidence to support such concerns. Young people may manage their anxiety through constant monitoring of physical sensations. They may seek reassurance from family, friends and medical professionals and spend hours of their time online, searching for health information that often reinforce anxious thoughts. They may also adopt behaviours which they feel can minimise risk and increase safety (what we call safety behaviours) such as taking blood pressure/pulse readings, feeling for lumps and closely tracking any symptoms. Avoidance of any anxiety provoking triggers is also common e.g. avoiding watching medical programmes, conversations related to illness or visiting friends / relatives in hospital.

In CBT sessions we invite young people to consider two potential theories, theory A and theory B. Theory A proposes that the young person is at risk of having a serious medical condition and so they need to do everything they possibly can to monitor and reduce the risk of this being the case. Theory B proposes that the young person has a psychological problem with worrying excessively about their physical symptoms and that everything that they are doing to manage this worry (e.g. focusing attention on physical symptoms, monitoring and tracking symptoms, reassurance seeking, checking and catastrophising what everyday symptoms might mean) is maintaining and reinforcing the health anxiety. Given that the young person is already living their lives according to theory A, sessions focus on generating experiments or exposures to test out theory B to see whether this may be a more helpful and accurate way of understanding what may be happening.

Health anxiety can be a distressing and overwhelming experience, but it is possible to regain peace of mind and break free from its grip. By catching and challenging unhelpful thinking related to health and building coping skills, individuals can navigate health concerns with resilience and confidence. If health anxiety is interfering in your daily life, seeking professional help from a qualified therapist trained in CBT can make a big difference.