It’s natural to be concerned about your health. But if persistent worries about illness interfere with your daily activities, you might be living with illness anxiety disorder.

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Asking your doctor about a symptom you’ve experienced is part of managing your wellness. Your input provides your doctor with important information they can use to assess your health.

People who live with illness anxiety disorder worry more than the usual amount. They wonder if they’re healthy, even after receiving the news that their physical examinations and lab test results show nothing amiss.

If you find yourself regularly focused on illness and disease, you might wonder how to stop worrying about health.

Also known as health anxiety or hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder is a persistent fear of developing a serious illness or disease.

There are two types of illness anxiety disorder:

  • care seeking, when a person seeks extra medical assessments
  • care avoiding, when a person is too afraid to see a doctor

The diagnosis of illness anxiety disorder first appeared in 2013, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Prior to that time, some people living with extreme health anxiety might have received a diagnosis of hypochondriasis, an outdated term that doctors no longer use.

Hypochondriasis isn’t quite the same as illness anxiety disorder. Hypochondriasis is a person’s worry about illness based solely on a misinterpretation of their symptoms. Illness anxiety disorder covers this and more and has replaced hypochondriasis as a diagnosis.

If you worry excessively about your health, you may be experiencing health anxiety.

The diagnostic criteria for illness anxiety disorder are as follows:

  • excessive worry about serious illness
  • mild or absent somatic (physical) symptoms
  • high anxiety due to an existing medical condition or family history
  • preoccupation and anxiety about health-related issues
  • repeated self-checking for signs of disease
  • symptoms have presented for at least 6 months
  • the health preoccupation isn’t from another mental health condition

You can still experience signs of health anxiety even if you don’t quite meet the criteria for a formal diagnosis.

Health anxiety signs include:

  • continued worry, even after reassurance from a doctor
  • persistent requests for additional tests
  • frequent visits to urgent care or the ER
  • regular symptom research
  • refusal to see a doctor out of fear

To complicate issues, anxiety can cause physical symptoms that may cause you to worry even more.

Examples include:

Even the knowledge that anxiety can have physical manifestations may not help when some signs, like chest pains and dizzy spells, mimic serious medical conditions. Even with reassuring test results, you might find yourself in a repeating cycle of worry.

There are a few reasons you might feel anxious about your health.

You might have a strong sense of interoception, which is your awareness of internal bodily sensations. This heightened sensitivity can make you worry if what you feel is ordinary or a symptom of illness.

Your family environment can also play a role. You might experience health anxiety if:

  • Your family frequently discusses health issues.
  • You or someone in your family has had a serious illness.
  • You have a family member who regularly discusses their worries about health.

Additional contributing factors include underlying anxiety disorders, as well as extensive time spent researching health-related topics online.

If you live with health anxiety, there may be steps you can take to worry less.

1. Try therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an effective anxiety treatment for many people.

CBT helps you identify how unhelpful thoughts can lead to unwanted feelings or behaviors. The therapy teaches you how to change the thinking patterns that are causing you difficulties.

2. Write it down

Whether it be a symptoms log, a journal entry, or simply a list of your fears, putting pen to paper may help you feel better.

A symptoms log can ease your worries by clarifying what you’re feeling. For example, if you experience chest pain after eating certain foods, the cause might be indigestion rather than an issue with your heart.

You can also start a daily practice of gratitude writing. According to older research from 2016, keeping a gratitude journal offers mental health benefits.

3. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the act of focusing on the present moment, rather than dwelling on your thoughts.

Many people achieve mindfulness through meditation, but there are other activities you can do in a mindful way, such as:

Mindfulness is particularly helpful for anxiety, stress, and depression, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Researchers believe that mindfulness can downregulate your body’s stress response, which is why it helps many people.

4. Find a distraction

Healthy anxiety stems from your thoughts, so finding something else to think about might help you relax.

Examples include:

  • a new hobby or project
  • time with friends
  • volunteering

If you find an activity that occupies your mind, it’s less likely to wander back to your health worries.

5. Focus on lifestyle

Many types of illness and disease can respond to lifestyle interventions.

For example, a 2018 study found that lifestyle factors can reduce a person’s chance of colorectal cancer (CRC), regardless of their genetics.

If you’re someone with a family history of CRC, this information can be very reassuring.

Taking concrete steps such as making helpful lifestyle changes may increase your confidence and relieve some of your stress. An added benefit is that it can also improve your health.

Many people ask their doctors about symptoms they experience, or what signs to watch for if they have a family history of an illness.

If your preoccupation is more than the usual helpful health monitoring, you may be experiencing health anxiety.

Anxiety-relief strategies you can try include CBT, mindfulness, and journaling.