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Do you often worry that you are sick or have a disease? This can be a sign of health anxiety, and local psychiatrists have observed an increase in people seeking medical attention for it.

What exactly is health anxiety? How does this mental health disorder affect the individual?

What is Health Anxiety Disorder?

Health anxiety is a general term, and when a person develops health anxiety, he tends to feel overly anxious or worried about his health and physical symptoms.

In clinical sense, health Anxiety is related to two conditions, namely Illness Anxiety Disorder and Somatic Symptom Disorder.

According to the School of Mental Health, approximately 35 adults, both new and existing, visit the School of Mental Health each year for mental health conditions such as sickness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder.

More and more people are seeking help for health anxiety these days, "mainly because medical information online is so informative that it can be taken out of context and misinterpreted".

Dr Lee Yen-lin, associate specialist consultant of the Department of Emotion Management and Anxiety Disorders Psychiatry at the School of Mental Health, said that according to the hospital's information, there was no clear trend to show whether the number of people seeking such assistance had increased or decreased.

However, he noted that some people with health anxiety do not seek help from a psychiatrist. In addition, health anxiety may also be a feature of other diagnosable mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may not be diagnosed separately.

In addition, Chen Hui-min, director of psychology and chief clinical psychologist at the National University Hospital, believes that as the public becomes more aware of a particular disease, more people may be expected to seek help in the future.

How to identify health anxiety symptoms?

'It's normal for a person to worry about their physical symptoms, but if it's excessive, then they may be suffering from health anxiety,' Mr. Li said.

Some symptoms of health anxiety include:

  • No symptoms, but always worried about getting sick
  • Start worrying when you read about a medical condition in the news or on social media
  • Check and recheck for physical symptoms
  • Constantly seek medical information, or often seek a doctor's consultation, to find an explanation for a physical abnormality
  • Despite a thorough medical examination or investigation, you are not reassured by your doctor's diagnosis

Lam stressed that for patients with health anxiety, although a large number of physical examinations and investigation results are normal, they may be temporarily relieved, but they still can't help worrying about the physical condition soon.

"They may rationally know that they are healthy, but still succumb to tremendous anxiety and worry."

He cited a middle-aged woman who, at the height of the pandemic, was so worried about contracting the disease that she kept coming to the clinic to ask doctors for tests. Even though the tests kept coming back negative, she couldn't rest easy.

"She was so anxious that she would lie awake wondering [if] she had the coronavirus."

Health anxiety affects life

Health anxiety can affect a person's life, family, work and interests, Chen said, adding that persistent worries about physical health can affect their mental health and consume their lives, leading to poor sleep and low mood.

"Ultimately, they may talk endlessly about their health and possible medical conditions, spend countless hours searching for information online, or avoid certain people, places, or activities out of fear of health risks."

She, too, says another group of health anxiety patients may not see a doctor for fear of finding out they may have a health problem, and that can be dangerous because an otherwise treatable condition may go untreated because of their fear.

Lam revealed that people with health anxiety often suffer from a great deal of anxiety, which can be unbearable. They can feel helpless and hopeless, become depressed, and even commit suicide.

You need to know what's wrong with you

Li said patients with health anxiety should understand their own problems and then take appropriate medicine.

"It may first require a medical assessment by a GP to eliminate the possibility of a real condition. But if no medical condition has been diagnosed and your anxiety about your health persists, you may be able to benefit from a mental health professional."

Chen agrees that it is more important for people to know that health anxiety can be treated. But the problem, she says, is that many people may not realize that their physical symptoms are caused by anxiety and instead believe they are actually ill.

"Rather than telling them it's all in their head or that their symptoms are fake, encourage them to think about how these worries are affecting their lives and interfering with the things they enjoy."

She added that it is important to encourage patients to seek evaluation by a mental health professional for assistance in this area.

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