health anxiety disorder
health anxiety disorder

What Is Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Posted on May 10, 2024 by Henry Ford Health Staff

Nearly everyone has been concerned about their health at some point in their life. Maybe you discovered a new symptom and didn’t know what it was or got a worrisome test result. But if anxiety about your health is always on your mind—and interfering with life—you could have illness anxiety disorder (IAD).

Erin Tobin, PhD, psychologist at Henry Ford Health, explains what illness anxiety disorder is and how to manage it with proper care.

Illness Anxiety: More Than Typical Worry

Illness anxiety disorder, also called health anxiety disorder, is a mental health condition that causes almost constant worry about having or getting a serious illness. You might have minor symptoms—or no symptoms at all—but thoughts about having or developing an illness still affect you every day. This condition used to be called hypochondria, but medical professionals don’t use that term anymore.

“It’s natural to worry or have concerns about your health if an illness runs in your family or you’ve faced health problems before,” says Dr. Tobin. “But IAD is different. The anxiety and fear are so strong they can impact your everyday life.”

People with illness anxiety disorder have worries about their health that don’t match their symptoms. For example, you might assume you’re stressed or dehydrated if you get a headache. A person with IAD, however, may think that headache is a sign of brain cancer.

“People with IAD interpret minor and explainable symptoms as signs of serious, life-threatening diseases,” says Dr. Tobin. “Even if there’s an understandable reason for the symptom, the person is deeply worried that it’s something much more severe.”

With illness anxiety disorder, the thoughts and beliefs about serious illness can interfere with your life in a variety of ways. “Some people with this condition spend hours every day researching illnesses online,” says Dr. Tobin. “They might also avoid going out for fear of getting a contagious illness. In some cases, a person feels so paralyzed by the anxiety that they stop doing things they enjoy. The COVID-19 pandemic also started or worsened symptoms of health anxiety for many.”

When Medical Tests Aren’t Reassuring

People with illness anxiety disorder often get excessive scans, blood tests or other procedures—but they don’t find comfort when the tests show nothing wrong. “Normal exams or test results may prompt someone with IAD to seek out more tests or even switch doctors,” says Dr. Tobin. “They are convinced they have a serious illness and that the team or tests are missing it.”

However, not everyone with IAD frequently visits their medical providers. “Some people with illness anxiety disorder avoid healthcare for years,” says Dr. Tobin. “In these cases, the person believes they are seriously ill, and they don’t want a doctor to confirm their worst fear.”

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Diagnosing Illness Anxiety Disorder

“Primary care providers play an important role in diagnosing illness anxiety disorder,” says Dr. Tobin. “They may notice that the person calls frequently with health concerns or requests for medical tests. The primary care provider can refer them to a mental health professional, who can diagnose or rule out the condition.” In some cases, primary care doctors work with psychologists or other mental health providers to address these needs.

To diagnose IAD, your primary care provider may perform a physical exam and, if needed, order medical tests. “We don’t diagnose someone with illness anxiety disorder until we’ve ruled out other physical and mental health conditions that may explain their symptoms or concerns,” explains Dr. Tobin.

But how can a person get a diagnosis if they avoid the doctor? It’s a difficult step, but it’s well worth the effort.

“If you’re afraid to see a doctor, focus on what’s truly important and your values,” suggests Dr. Tobin. “Having proper healthcare means you can be there for friends, family or other things that matter to you. Don’t listen to the story the anxiety is telling you. Your healthcare provider is on your side—we’re here to help address your concerns, provide options and improve your quality of life.”

What Are the Treatments For Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Illness anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder, and people with this condition can’t just “get over it.” The anxiety is real and isn’t something you should try to manage on your own.

“IAD treatment isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Dr. Tobin. “Your mental health professional can recommend a plan that fits your needs.”

People with IAD may benefit from:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps you understand your thoughts and emotions and develop healthier ones. “A licensed mental health professional can customize your CBT sessions to target the unique challenges of IAD,” says Dr. Tobin. Preliminary evidence also shows that acceptance and commitment Therapy (ACT) and narrative therapies are beneficial in IAD treatment.
  • Medications: Some types of antidepressants help people with illness anxiety disorder. “There is data to support that antidepressants can help treat IAD,” says Dr. Tobin.
  • Lifestyle interventions: Stress management can be a helpful addition to your care plan. “Therapeutic breathing, exercise, meditation and yoga are a few ways to reduce stress and feel better,” says Dr. Tobin. Preserving time for sleep and a balanced diet also improve well-being and quality of life.

Anxiety about your health is a powerful feeling. You may feel like it will never get better, but with proper care, it can. Dr. Tobin emphasizes that treatment can be life-changing for people with IAD.

“Your mental health is an important part of your overall health, and you don’t have to struggle through illness anxiety disorder alone,” says Dr. Tobin. “Mental health professionals have proven, evidence-based treatments that can make a world of difference. And it all starts with asking your primary care provider for help.”

Reviewed by Dr. Erin Tobin, an integrated clinical health psychologist in Academic Internal Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital.

Categories : FeelWell

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