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Somatic Symptom Disorder: When health anxiety takes over your life.


In the digital age, it is easy to overanalyze any ache or pain. Google and a few mouse clicks can help you diagnose yourself. After a few Google searches, you may find that your shoulder is hurting, and you will need to undergo invasive surgery to remove a tumor.

You may have hypochondriasis or health anxiety. These disorders are now called somatic symptoms disorder and sickness anxiety disorder. Both disorders are characterize by excessive worry about health and illness. However, physical symptoms can be present in the bodily symptom condition.

It’s important to remember that there is no either/or,” states registered psychotherapist Natacha Durham, MA, RPH. Someone can have both a medical disorder and a somatic symptom disorder. Their excessive worry determines whether or not they have a somatic symptom disorder.

They can affect people at any age, but they usually start around 30. About 5%-7% of adults are affective. Women are more likely to suffer from somatic symptom disorders and illness anxiety disorder as with other anxiety disorders.

Duke explains health anxiety and how to treat it.

What is health anxiety, and what causes it?

You may suffer from illness anxiety disorder or somatic symptoms disorder if you are anxious about your health.


Duke explains that in both disorders, a person is overly concerned and preoccupied with their health – far more than what medical experts would advise. Someone with somatic symptoms disorder will experience physical symptoms that may or may be cause by a medical condition. “Those with illness anxiety disorder will worry about their health even if they don’t have any physical symptoms, despite repeated assurances.”

As with other anxiety disorders, individuals with somatic symptoms disorder or illness anxiety disorder are usually aware that they are worrying excessively.

Duke notes that “there’s often a part of an individual who knows that their worry is out of proportion, and another part which can’t bear any uncertainty in regards to their health.”

A person must experience significant physical symptoms and debilitating anxiety for at least six months to be diagnose with somatic symptom disorders.

It’s also six months for illness anxiety disorder. The individual is preoccupied with the idea of developing or having an illness, even if there are no mild symptoms.

People with illness anxiety disorder tend to be hypervigilant when it comes to any changes they notice in their body. They may seek reassurance repeatedly from medical professionals or, in some cases, avoid treatment out of fear.

What is the difference between health anxiety and general health concerns?

A headache can cause someone with illness anxiety to fear that they have a tumor in their brain.

Duke explains that anxiety can jump from one illness to another. They may worry about a brain tumor, then develop a cough, and suddenly become worried about lung cancer.

Health anxiety is a disorder that comes in different degrees.

Duke says that we all have different personalities, and some people will always be more anxious. “But anxiety is a problem if it interferes with someone’s ability to function.”

It’s wise to seek medical advice when you are concerned about your health. However, people with health anxiety worry and believe they are sick even after their doctor has reassured them and they have received negative test results.

Factitious disorders are different because the person believes they’re sick. Munchhausen syndrome was formerly called a factitious disorder. In this disorder, a person fakes an illness but is aware that it is not real.

What are the symptoms associate with health anxiety?

You may have the following symptoms if you suffer from illness anxiety disorder:

  • Anxiety about catching or getting a disease.
  • Lack of symptoms or mild symptoms
  • Anxiety that is out of proportion to the symptoms or risks associated with illness.
  • Hypervigilance and frequent checking of symptoms.
  • Fear of going to the doctor or seeking care frequently despite being reassure.

You may experience any of the following symptoms if you suffer from somatic symptom disorders:

  • A persistent physical symptom that causes distress and interferes with your ability to function.
  • An excessive amount of anxiety or time spent worrying about symptoms or seeking medical attention.

Can anxiety about health cause physical symptoms?

People with illness anxiety disorder are frighten by medical conditions. They may see normal body functions like breathing and digestion as signs of something more serious.

Somatic symptom disorder is a disorder that causes people to worry about their health, just as someone who has an illness anxiety disorder does. However, they have real physical symptoms.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain.
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Gastrointestinal complaints.

Sometimes there is no medical explanation. If there is a medical explanation for their symptoms, keeping their worry in check is hard.

Duke says that in the past, people with health anxiety disorders were usually those without a medical problem. Being diagnose with health anxiety does not discount the possibility of having a medical condition.

Anxiety disorders

What can cause someone to have health anxiety? 

What are some of the factors that can cause health anxiety?


In the past few years, we have been living with CoVID-19. It’s understandable why people feel worry, from the daily news to the mask mandates.

According to COVID-19, patients are more likely to develop a somatic symptom disorder. COVID-19 is a disease that’s still being studied.

Duke says that pandemics are bound to harm mental health, including an increase in anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms.

According to the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression worldwide increased by 25 percent during the first year after COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) attributed this to social isolation, the fear of becoming sick, the loss of a loved one, and changes in routine that come with a pandemic.

Duke says COVID-19 can be viewed as a perfect storm for developing a health anxiety disorder. “I’ve seen many patients with increased health anxiety during the pandemic.”


Are you constantly searching the Internet for information on a disease you believe you may have?

Duke says, “the internet does not usually cause health anxieties, but it can exacerbate them.”

People anxious about their health turn to the Internet to relieve them, but they only make it worse.

Duke says that people are looking for reassurance but instead read about vague symptoms that dozens of things could cause. If you are health-conscious, you will latch onto the worst of them.

The Internet gives people a small chance of being diagnosed or treated with certain treatments. It encourages fear and behavior. People often return to their health and the “what ifs.” What if I am diagnosed with a rare illness? What if doctors miss something important?

This thinking can be fueled by reading online stories of people who have been “finally identified” after years of misdiagnosis.

Negative health experiences

You may worry about symptoms as an adult if you have had an experience with a serious disease as a child. People who were abused as children may experience health anxiety in their later years.

It’s possible that a relative who was overly concerned about their health affected her perception of symptoms and medical treatment.

Duke explains that if you’re young, having a close family member suffer a long-term or serious illness can lead to health anxiety. You may have grown up feeling helpless and worried about developing a similar disease.

What is the treatment for health anxiety?

Whatever the term, the goal of treatment for somatic symptom disorder is to improve the patient’s quality of life.

Many people with health anxiety disorders have spent time and money chasing health concerns.

Duke emphasizes that if someone is experiencing health anxiety, they should seek medical attention first. If their doctor has ruled out a physical reason and we are confident that it is illness anxiety, they may benefit from psychotherapy and mindfulness.

When there are physical symptoms, it is important to include both mental and medical treatment in the treatment plan.

Duke adds, “Health anxiety can be tricky to deal with because you need to ensure that the individual’s symptoms are addressed and that they also learn to have a more balanced view of their health.


Your doctor might suggest a type of talk therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT stresses the link between thoughts and feelings. It can help develop a more logical and evidence-based approach to health.

Duke says that CBT teaches you to question your negative beliefs about your health and to consider alternative explanations for symptoms. You will also discover what behaviors maintain your health anxiety and learn positive coping techniques.


Your doctor may prescribe medication if CBT and other methods don’t work. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be prescribed.

Duke says that “psychotherapy can be as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate anxiety.” In more severe cases, a combination of therapy and medication will usually be recommend.

You may be suffering from health anxiety.

You heard about or read about a certain condition and thought it applied to you. You suddenly get this strange, nagging sensation that you have developed a condition.

Students of medicine often experience the same symptoms as the diseases they are studying, researching, and reading about.

Duke says that the more we concentrate on something, it grows in our minds. Reading about an illness repeatedly can activate our fear system, even when there is no real danger.

Duke suggests weighing the evidence if you are obsessively worried about your health.

She says, “Consider all the evidence that supports and refutes your negative health thoughts and you’ll likely arrive at a more balanced view which will allow you to solve problems.”

You must externalize your emotions after a medical examination. Refrain from keeping things that bother you inside. Talk to a friend you trust or see a mental health specialist if your anxiety grows.

Leave the Internet alone.

Duke says that the Internet will only provide a momentary sense of comfort. It’s like falling down a rabbit hole of anxiety. Try positive distractions like meditation and exercise.

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