By Ken Goodman, LCSW
The illness you fear might not be the illness you have. I recently conducted an online support group for people with all sorts of health fears, from cancer and heart disease to ALS and MS. Each shared their worries about moles on the skin, irregular heart palpitations, and numbness and tingling. Although their specific fears varied, they all had one thing in common; none of them had ever been diagnosed with a series illness and they all related to the following scenario:
Dina felt great after getting a clean bill of health from her physician but as she tried to fall asleep, she dwelled on one statement he made, Tumors can grow at any time. Come back in six months if you’re concerned. Questions raced through her mind as she tossed and turned, Why did he tell me that? If there was nothing wrong, why would he say come back in six months? What if he missed something? Why do I keep getting headaches and dizziness? Dina felt so anxious she got out of bed and searched the web for answers. As she reread the same articles about symptoms of brain cancer, she began to feel lightheaded. Why do I keep feeling this way? Do I really have brain cancer? Is this really happening?
The good news was, Dina did not have brain cancer or a brain tumor. Dina had health anxiety. There are two types of health anxieties: Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder, formally known as hypochondriasis. Many people with health anxiety are often unable to function or enjoy life due to their fears and preoccupations. They obsess over bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat), physical oddities (skin blemishes), and physical discomfort (headaches, stomach aches, lightheadedness).They might worry about a specific organ (brain, heart) or a disease they heard about on the news or at work (MS, diabetes). They are preoccupied with the belief that they have, or are in danger of contracting, a serious illness. Many will purse doctors and tests repeatedly for reassurance, but are reluctant to seek mental health treatment since they believe their condition is medically based.
Why does health anxiety persist despite reassurance from doctors?
Although some refuse to be examined by their physician due to their fear of discovering the worst, seeking reassurance from doctors, insisting on repeated medical tests, and visits to urgent care, are more common in health anxiety. Being reassured by the doctor that there is no serious medical illness brings relief — temporarily. The vicious cycle quickly resumes as new thoughts and physical sensation surface, followed by googling and self-diagnosis, misinterpretations of news in the media, anxiety, and more visits to doctors to resolve the uncertainty. The cycle ignites with each new alarming thought or symptom.
The False Alarm
Car alarms are set off when a criminal breaks in but imagine how problematic it would be if the siren blared each time a pedestrian walked by. The car alarm would be misinterpreting innocent people as dangerous criminals.
With health anxiety there is the misinterpretation of discomfort and normal bodily sensations as dangerous. The body is very noisy. Healthy human bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, unexpected, and unwanted, but not dangerous.