For obvious reasons, we should all be aware of how we’re feeling and tending to our personal health regularly. But for 1 to 5 percent of the general population, worrying about health crosses the line into something more serious: illness anxiety disorder.
Formerly known as hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder causes an individual to worry excessively about their health whether or not they have any symptoms.
“We know we’re mortal. We know illness exists, and intermittently throughout our lives, we’ll worry about our health,” Dr. Andrew Rosen, psychologist and the founder and director of the Center for Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida, tells SheKnows. “But when it becomes too intense, too frequent, and starts to encroach upon a person’s day-to-day living, it is at the level of disorder.”
Sound familiar to you? Here are the signs you might be suffering from IAD:
You immediately assume the worst about a symptom
How do you react when you aren’t feeling yourself? Ken Goodman, a licensed clinical social worker and creator of the Anxiety Solutions Series, tells SheKnows that the average person will notice a symptom and not immediately jump to conclusions.
“These individuals don’t think about it too much and can focus on their day,” Goodman explains. “If symptoms persist or get worse, they will simply go to the doctor to get checked out.”
But when one has IAD, even the most minor symptoms become major concerns.
“When people with the disorder get headaches or stomach problems, rather than attributing it to something logical like stress, they come up with the idea that it is something more severe,” Rosen says. “For example, if they get chest pain, they think it must be a heart disease. If their memory is a little off, they think it must be a type of dementia.”
This worst-case-scenario thinking may have to do with your family’s own mental health history. For example, a study published in the journal World Psychiatry shows that environmental factors, such as growing up with a caretaker who has anxiety, affect one’s chances of developing IAD.
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“Anxiety tends to run in families, but how the anxiety manifests itself might be different for each relative,” Goodman explains. “A father with social anxiety may pass on his anxiety to his daughter, who for some reason develops illness anxiety.”
Your health concerns take up a major portion of your day
One way medical professionals diagnose IAD is by determining if the anxiety interferes with one’s pleasure and happiness or keeps an individual from taking part in their normal day-to-day life, such as eating, sleeping and even social activities.
“Extreme behaviors include reading articles about the feared illness hours each day and constantly monitoring their body for signs and symptoms, so much so that it becomes difficult to focus on work, school and enjoying life,” Goodman explains.
Let’s be honest — most of us are guilty of typing our symptoms into Google and taking those online health-assessment quizzes. But if you are choosing to research symptoms instead of spending time with friends, it may be a warning sign.
More: Is Worrying About Getting Sick Actually Making You Sick?
You’re constantly going to the doctor… or avoiding the doctor entirely
Goodman recalls working with a patient who went to physicians, emergency rooms and urgent cares more than 20 times in a six-month period — something that is easily perceived as IAD. However, individuals with illness anxiety can also be more inclined to skip doctors’ appointments out of fear of bad news — something Rosen classifies as "avoidance behavior."
“The behavior creates a cycle,” Rosen notes. “Once a patient cancels the visit, their anxiety intensifies because they later feel as though the condition is getting worse without medical attention.”
Rosen explains that this leads individuals to instead depend on the wide availability of medical information in the media, which anyone without a medical degree isn’t really qualified to assess meaningfully.
You’re are distrusting toward medical evidence
“Not only do sufferers spend a great deal of time worrying about the possibility of illness, they sometimes believe they do have it and that death is imminent,” Goodman explains. “Even when reassured by doctors that they don’t have a feared diagnosis, people with illness anxiety often question the evaluation and continue to worry.”
Rosen agrees, pointing out that individuals with this disorder are never convinced by the results of medical scans, blood tests or at-home DNA kits.
“Anybody with illness anxiety disorder is not satisfied with a 99 percent chance of being healthy,” Rosen says. “They immediately assume that they are the rare 1 percent, so tests meant to ease one’s anxiety actually just exacerbate it.”
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While IAD can never be cured, it can be managed. If you can relate to any of these symptoms, it may be time to reach out to a medical professional to ease your mind about your health concerns and to begin getting your anxieties under control.
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