Health anxiety (sometimes also called hypochondriasis) is the intense fear that perceived physical symptoms are indicative of a serious illness. The person often experiences preoccupation with and hypersensitivity to any bodily sensations experienced.
As a result, the person with health anxiety often engages in checking the body for symptoms. Once symptoms are perceived, the cardinal feature of health anxiety is reassurance seeking. The person might first engage in excessive research about the symptom to determine what type of illness the symptoms could be indicative of. This is typically done in an effort to make the person feel comforted by the absence of a serious illness but often backfires into convincing them that there might be something really wrong. Seeking repeated medical advice for the same symptom is then often observed – despite receiving negative test results. Unfortunately, there is always room for uncertainty and doubt (i.e., what if the condition was missed by the test?) and the reassurance does not provide long lasting effects. The person might also avoid activities which they believe might worsen their perceived condition (i.e., exercise).
Health anxiety can cause severe disruptions in a person’s life. Imagine if you thought there was something really wrong (even possibly terminal!) and no one believed you? It is really important to remember that the person with health anxiety DOES physically feel the symptoms they are describing. However, what they think the symptom means is not medically suggested. Research from pain scholars suggest that when we concentrate on something that hurts, we are more likely to experience more intense pain. Something similar might be occurring within the symptoms experienced by someone with health anxiety – the mere fact that they are attending to their symptom actually amplifies the sensation.
Read more about health anxiety on this educational resource from the Mayo Clinic.