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Constantly Worrying About Getting Ill? You’re Not Alone – Health Anxiety Is Soaring This Winter Season, So Here’s What You Need To Know

Vogue Arabia, April 2019. Photo: Mann

Christmas parties have been and gone, the fizz has flattened on the New Year’s bubbles and it’s back to work. Oh, wait you’re sick (again). It seems many of us have spent the winter season so far battling non-stop bugs and it’s really no surprise. We’ve had two years of catching up to do after social restrictions. Our poor immune systems really have taken a beating.

Hospital admissions are up and we’re being told to wear masks again as there’s a new strain of Covid making the rounds. The Guardian last week reported that the number of patients in hospital with flu has risen 79% in the past week, according to new data, with higher than usual numbers of scarlet fever and invasive strep A infections also being experienced in the UK, some with tragic consequences. It’s hard not to be concerned.

The latest health headlines are, understandably, causing a rise in health anxiety cases, something many of us encountered during the pandemic, afraid to leave our homes and worried our bodies were battling something more sinister. Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic shares everything we need to know about health anxiety, from the signs to look out for to how to get help.

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety is very similar to hypochondria, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Hypochondria is a phobia of illness and worrying about getting ill.

“These days, mental health practitioners tend to use the term health anxiety as it better reflects the condition in terms of the anxiety it causes, whereas hypochondria refers principally to a phobia,” says Dr Spelman.

What are the symptoms of health anxiety?

“In terms of symptoms, the person suffering from health anxiety grows increasingly preoccupied with their health and focuses on physical signs or sensations that they feel could be an indicator that there is something wrong,” explains Dr Spelman.

This often leads to excessive checking of things such as blemishes, pulse rate, blood sugar levels or lumps and bumps incessantly and obsessively as well as researching possible causes. “It differs with everyone and depends on the condition the individual is most concerned about developing, which can change periodically,” she says.

It’s not uncommon for a hypochondriac to become fixated with one illness at one time, especially if the condition has a big presence in their life. For example, if there is a family member with cancer, the hypochondriac might start to worry about whether or not they also have cancer, and in the case of a global pandemic, it’s likely that a hypochondriac would become worried about catching Covid-19.

Did health anxiety become more common as a result of the pandemic?

According to Dr Spelman, the pandemic has resulted in more people seeking help for health anxiety. “In our clinic based in London, we did see a definite increase during the pandemic, in the number of clients suffering from this type of anxiety and more people are self-referring with the condition than ever before.”

What’s the treatment for health anxiety?

While it’s natural for a hypochondriac to seek assurances about their health, for example from a doctor or by taking a medical test, Dr Spelman warns that the condition needs longer term treatment.

“It’s important to realize that constantly seeking reassurance about your health, whether from Google or your GP, only provides very short term relief and actually feeds into the problem. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is most often used to treat health related anxiety as it teaches the sufferer how to challenge their beliefs and drop the unhelpful behavior that feeds into the condition.”

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