At one time or another, each of us has worried about our health or felt anxious about the physical symptoms we were experiencing. Most of the time, those worries are temporary and fade away. But for some, health concerns and worries remain persistent and cause significant distress. Some people frequently worry that they are experiencing a medical emergency or serious illness, and minor symptoms can elicit waves of distress or anxiety. This is the realm of health anxiety. It is important to understand that the line between an actual health concern and anxious preoccupation can be difficult to navigate, and this line can be further influenced by our lived experiences, including our gender.
In this blog post, we’ll talk about what health anxiety is, why it’s particularly challenging for women, trans and non-binary individuals who were assigned female at birth, and tips to help people cope with their health anxiety.
Defining Health Anxiety
Health anxiety is a term used to describe excessive distress and preoccupation arising from concerns about one's own health and well-being1. For example, people with health anxiety often perceive ordinary sensations or minor symptoms as indicators of serious medical conditions, despite a lack of supporting medical evidence. This excessive focus on health-related matters often leads to significant distress, impaired daily functioning, and a persistent search for reassurance from medical professionals1. In fact, illness anxiety disorder is a specific mental health condition.
Examples of symptoms and behaviours that are common in health anxiety include:1,2,3
Monitoring the body for changes and hyper-awareness of physical symptoms.
Interpretation of symptoms as signs of severe illness, such as believing or fearing that chest pain is indicative of a serious medical issue.
Seeking reassurance from friends, family, and most importantly, medical professionals in the form of medical consultations and examinations.
Heightened physiological arousal—such as an increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, or gastrointestinal disturbances—due to amplified anxiety.
Avoidant behaviours, such as avoiding media that mention illnesses or refraining from talking about health.
Extensively seeking information about illnesses due to intense worry.
Physical symptoms include chest tightness, headaches, sweating, trembling, or numbness.
Importantly, the way you perceive and react to your symptoms can intensify the discomfort you're facing4. For example, most of the symptoms listed above may actually amplify or exacerbate health anxiety (like seeking reassurance and constant body monitoring)4. As well, when we receive reassurance about our health concerns, we experience temporary relief from anxiety. Although relief may sound like a good thing, seeking reassurance teaches us and makes us think that we cannot tolerate the anxiety on our own. And so, when those anxious feelings creep up again, we go back to reassurance-seeking behaviours which can exacerbate the cycle of anxiety. This can then increase your physical symptoms—which further convince and validate that you are seriously ill—and the cycle continues4.
Tips for Coping with Health Anxiety
Focus on the present. At particularly difficult times, practice mindfulness by focusing on your senses and what's happening around you. Ground yourself in the present moment.
Stop searching for your symptoms. While educating yourself is important, avoid excessive online searching for symptoms; find a few trusted resources and stick to those.
Avoid self-diagnosis. There is a lot of misinformation about health and wellness—especially on social media—that can cause people unnecessary worry.
Challenge negative thoughts. Ask yourself if there's evidence to support the thoughts that are fueling your anxiety and if there are alternative explanations.
Keep a journal. Writing down your worries, anxious thoughts, and symptoms can help you identify patterns and triggers, as well as making them easier to manage.
Establish a trusted medical relationship. Develop a rapport with a healthcare provider who listens to your concerns and provides explanations. A trustworthy medical professional can offer reassurance and guidance.
Seek help from a mental health professional. If your health anxiety is significantly impacting your daily life and your primary healthcare provider does not offer any assistance, consider seeking help directly from a mental health professional.
How Gender Can Impact Health Anxiety
As we discuss anxiety in the context of healthcare, it's also vital to recognize that the intersection of gender biases and health anxiety results in a challenging paradox for women and for trans and non-binary people who were assigned female at birth. For many, symptoms are frequently and incorrectly linked to a psychological origin5. On one hand, physical symptoms may indeed be a manifestation of health anxiety, but on the other hand, women’s authentic concerns about their health and well-being are often brushed aside or minimized if they mention anxiety or stress6.
What can be done about this paradox? The answer is that healthcare providers are never right to dismiss health concerns. Symptoms triggered by stress and worry are just as real as those connected to a physical illness2 and your healthcare provider should be able to recommend a course of action for you, just as they would for a physical illness. It’s okay to be persistent; you deserve empathic medical attention either way.
In conclusion, when it comes to something like health anxiety, it is important to remember that those feelings and symptoms are valid. However, it is also important to carefully evaluate your thoughts and concerns to ensure they are based on facts and medical evidence, educate yourself using credible sources, advocate for yourself in terms of professional healthcare, and always seek the evaluation and advice of qualified health professional(s). If you do not feel comfortable with your healthcare team, you may wish to seek a second opinion.
This post was written in collaboration with WellIntel Talks, whose mission is to increase access to reliable, engaging, and evidence-based health and wellness education. They are a collective of expert speakers who hold a Masters degree (or higher) in their area of wellness expertise and provide wellness education talks on a broad range of topics such as the foundations of mental health, inclusivity and diversity, promoting positive body image, workplace burnout, and many more. Take actionable steps towards the protection and promotion of your own wellness, as well as the wellness of others, by booking a WellIntel Talk today!
Written by: Caya Healthcare Centre and WellIntel Talks
Rask, C. U., Gehrt, T. B., Rimvall, M. K., & Frostholm, L. (2020). Health Anxiety: Conceptualization and Future Directions. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie, 228(2), 141–144. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000407
Asmundson, G. J. G., & Fergus, T. A. (2019). The concept of health anxiety. In E. Hedman-Lagerlöf (Ed.), The clinician's guide to treating health anxiety: Diagnosis, mechanisms, and effective treatment (pp. 1–18). Elsevier Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-811806-1.00001-9
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Somatic symptom and related disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
Hogan, B. (2010). Coping with health anxiety. Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, 1, 24.
Dusenbury, M (2017). Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180523-how-gender-bias-affects-your-healthcare?ocid=global_future_rss
Kwint, J. (2022, November). Women’s Health: Why Do Women Feel Unheard? NIHR Evidence. https://evidence.nihr.ac.uk/collection/womens-health-why-women-feel-unheard/