Can worrying about your health make you sick? A recent study performed in Norway has indicated that health anxiety – a general unease about the state of one’s health, even if they have been confirmed to be healthy – can lead to an overall higher preponderance of negative physical and psychological conditions.
The study in question, performed by the Hordaland Health Study (HUSK) with the Cardiovascular Diseases in Norway (CVDNOR) center, studied a sample size of 7,000 Norwegians over a period of about ten years. These individuals were measured for indicators of medical anxiety, and their risk of Ischemic Heart Disease (IHD) was also measured over a ten-year period.
The results were shocking – individuals who had generalized medical anxiety appeared to be twice as likely to develop IHD. A total of 6.1% of all individuals who reported health anxiety contracted IHD – as compared to only 3.0% of all non-cases. Adjusted for lifestyle and cardiovascular-specific risk factors, this represents a 70% increase in the risk of developing IHD.
The most likely culprit of this increased risk of heart disease is likely the high levels of stress that are often present in health anxiety related cases. Constant, excessive levels of stress have been shown to increase heart disease risk. Symptoms can include narrowing of blood vessels, increased risks of blockages, and even the hardening of heart tissue.
So while health anxiety may be unfounded, excessive levels of stress caused by health anxiety can lead to real-world complications. But what exactly is “health anxiety”? Let’s take a look at this condition – and how it can be recognized and treated.
Health Anxiety Isn’t Hypochondria – But It’s Close
Some professionals use “health anxiety” and “hypochondria” interchangeably. However, this is a misrepresentation of health anxiety. Health anxiety is not nearly as intense as hypochondria – it can be thought of as a sort of “precursor condition”.
The key difference is that in severe cases of hypochondria, patients can be delusional – they often suffer from imagined symptoms, and no treatments that a doctor can prescribe will ever provide them with a solution. They are absolutely convinced that they have a serious disease – even if there are no physiological indications that this is the case.
However, this is not the case in health anxiety. Health anxiety is generally much less intense. Patients may not experience delusional symptoms, but it is still hard to convince them that they’re in good health. They will over-monitor their bodies, misinterpret benign symptoms, and often turn to the internet to try to figure out their “condition”.
Three Simple Questions To Help Diagnose Health Anxiety
Nurses may come across cases of health anxiety – so it’s important to recognize them, and recommend further help for patients who may be suffering from mild-to-moderate cases of health anxiety. Here are three simple questions you can ask patients who may suffer from health anxiety, in order to gain a greater understanding of their mental state.
- Have you been worrying excessively about a specific health problem? Simply ask a patient if they’ve been worrying a lot about a particular health problem – even after it’s been ruled out by medical professionals.
- Do you usually worry about your health in general? Most healthy people don’t tend to stress about their health – if they feel fine, they’re fine! A patient who worries about their health even when they feel normal could have health anxiety.
- Have you ever felt that your health issues are more severe than your doctors claim? This is the most common symptom of health anxiety. Patients simply won’t accept the doctor’s assessment that there’s nothing wrong – and they will continue to anguish and worry about their health, regardless of the medical advice given to them.
If the answer to one – or all three – of these questions is “yes”, it’s quite possible that the patient in questions has some form of mild-to-moderate health anxiety, and you should speak to a doctor or supervisor about their suspected condition so that they can seek appropriate treatment.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy – The Only Way To Cure Health Anxiety
While lower-level health anxiety is rather insignificant compared to hypochondria, it is a real psychological condition – and no amount of patient reassurance given by you, your supervisors, doctors, or any other medical professionals will be enough to “cure” them. Typically, the only real way to cure health anxiety is with a dedicated regimen of cognitive-behavioral therapy, administered by a practicing psychologist.
Usually, the patient in question will undergo 5-10 therapy sessions, wherein the cause of their health anxiety is revealed, and they will be given simple mindfulness exercises and other coping mechanisms – through which they can mitigate their health anxiety, and maintain a healthier mental state.
Recognize Health Anxiety At Your Job – And Get Your Patients The Help They Need
Some medical professionals brush off patients with health anxiety or hypochondria – but these conditions are truly damaging. Mental health is just as important as physical health. If you have a patient suffering from health anxiety, their mental health is suffering – even if they don’t have any of the diseases or illnesses that they claim to have.
Without treatment, these individuals will have a poor mental state – and their stress and anxiety could lead to real diseases, as evidenced by the above Norwegian study. So it’s crucial that we nurses provide our patients with the information they need, to get treatment.
So if you think a patient may have health anxiety, consult with a supervisor and determine the best course of action, such as a referral to a clinical psychologist. Doing so will allow you to maximize both the mental and physical health of your patients – and improve your patient outcomes.