Health Anxiety/Hypochondriasis: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Transcultural Adaptation

During this year’s Annual OCD Conference, Thröstur Björgvinsson, PhD, ABPP of the Houston OCD Program and his colleague, Szu-Hui Lee, PhD spoke to conference attendees on Health Anxiety/Hypochondriasis: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Transcultural Adaptation.

Thröstur Björgvinsson, PhD, ABPP and his colleague, Szu-Hui Lee, PhD during their presentation on Health Anxiety.
Thröstur Björgvinsson, PhD, ABPP and his colleague, Szu-Hui Lee, PhD during their presentation on Health Anxiety.
Thröstur Björgvinsson, PhD, ABPP improvising during his presentation while hotel staff fixed the projector so he could present his talk at the 2014 IOCDF Conference
Thröstur Björgvinsson, PhD, ABPP improvising during his presentation while hotel staff fixed the projector so he could present his talk at the 2014 IOCDF Conference

What is Health Anxiety? Health anxiety is the feeling that your health is (or will become) jeopardized; however, you are uncertain how it might become threatened or what the outcome of the health scare might be.

What is Hypochondriasis? Hypochondriasis is the fear that you might have (or that you already do have) a serious health condition based on benign symptoms, despite being repeatedly reassured and medically cleared for this condition from appropriate medical professionals.

What do you mean “benign” bodily symptoms? We all experience normal “noisy body” phenomenon where our bodies gurgle, twitch, ache, etc throughout the day. However, people with Health Anxiety or Hypochondriasis misinterpret these normal and benign body processes as being signs of a serious, but not yet diagnosed, health condition. For example, a person with Hypochondriasis might feel weakness in their legs. They may then research their symptoms and find out that muscle weakness is a symptom of HIV/AIDS. Suddenly other things in their body start to feel like more symptoms of HIV/AIDS. They then might repeatedly go to their physician and request HIV testing. They tell themselves and their physician after each negative test that the HIV just hasn’t shown up yet or that the test is inaccurate for them.

What is the treatment for Hypochondriasis or Health Anxiety? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the leading treatment for Health Anxiety and Hypochondriasis. CBT uses cognitive and behavioral exercises to help the person correct and change their beliefs about:

  • bodily sensations,
  • the state of their general health,
  • how vulnerable they are to disease, and
  • the effects of avoidance, checking, and reassurance seeking