Health anxiety

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP, Livi

Medically reviewed

Health anxiety (previously known as hypochondria) is the regular or constant worry that you have an illness or may fall ill, even when medical tests show there’s nothing present. The anxiety can be very hard to control and take over everyday life.

Symptoms of health anxiety

A person with health anxiety will consistently view common symptoms or minor illness as signs of a serious illness. For example, a headache may lead you to think you have a brain tumour, or pain in the stomach may be put down to stomach cancer. 

Some people will worry about a range of different conditions, whereas others will only worry about one illness in particular. The diseases that people most commonly worry about are: 

  • Cancer 

  • Heart disease 

  • Neurological conditions (conditions affecting the nervous system) for example multiple sclerosis (MS) 

Common behaviours seen in people with health anxiety include: 

  • Avoidant behaviour – this can mean avoiding situations, places, people or activities that trigger anxiety. This may include avoiding visiting sick friends, playing sports or watching medical programmes. 

  • Control behaviour – these are behaviours you carry out when you’re feeling anxious about having a serious illness. This can include constantly inspecting your body for signs of a condition, excessively searching for symptoms online or being worried that your doctor or investigations have been incorrect. 

Sometimes the anxiety can cause physical symptoms itself, like headaches or tummy pain – so called somatisation. 

Causes of health anxiety

The exact reason why some people suffer from health anxiety is not fully understood but hereditary and psychological factors can play a role. Significant life events, such as the death of a loved one or becoming a parent, can also trigger health anxiety. The condition can coexist with other mental health issues such as depression and other anxiety disorders. 

Health anxiety in children and young people

A child with a parent who has health anxiety is more likely to develop the condition themselves. This is also the case for children who have had close relatives become ill or die from a medical condition.

Treatment for health anxiety

Talking to a GP or therapist can help you find the treatment that’s right for you. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness are treatments that work well for health anxiety. These involve being carefully exposed to a scenario that triggers health anxiety, then practising techniques to calm down. 

In some cases, antidepressants may be required to supplement therapy but only after an individual assessment by a doctor. 

What can you do to help?

A therapist will give you advice and things to work on during therapy to help with your health anxiety. The following can also be helpful: 

  • Cut down on caffeine 

  • Keeping yourself occupied with things like craft

  • Keep a track of when you become anxious about your help and try and reduce this every day gradually

  • Try to avoid stress 

  • Exercise (although this can be hard for people with health anxiety, it is proven to help)

  • Stop smoking 

  • Try to get enough sleep.

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP, Livi