Illness Anxiety Disorder: Obsessive Worry Over Getting Sick

Monitoring ourselves constantly for symptoms. Am I having a heart attack? Have I contracted something? What if this mark on my skin is something serious? Illness anxiety disorder is a psychological condition that's on the rise. Find out about it here.
Illness Anxiety Disorder: Obsessive Worry Over Getting Sick

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 22 November, 2022

Illness anxiety disorder is on the increase. It often involves the fear of getting infected and contracting certain diseases. Or, being obsessed with constantly consulting the Internet to check if specific symptoms mean something more serious. In fact, many people see their lives as being restricted and dominated by this kind of preoccupation.

When you first see the term, illness anxiety disorder, you might think we’re referring to the classic hypochondriasis. However, it should be noted that this term was removed from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a diagnostic category in 2013.

When considering this disorder, there are two things we must take into account. Firstly, it isn’t easy to live with the permanent anguish of getting sick. It causes discomfort, fear, and the inability to function, both on a personal and professional level. This fuels the suffering even more. Secondly, this psychological disorder is difficult to diagnose.

As a rule, when an individual visits their doctor with specific symptoms, they focus on these manifestations and might order certain tests. They don’t always take into account that the anxiety of the patient and their mental state may be feeding the situation.

Girl in bed in pain due to illness anxiety

Illness Anxiety: symptoms, causes, and treatment

There are usually two curious situations that occur in illness anxiety disorder. The first is that when the sufferer goes to the doctor and is told that their health is good, they’re not satisfied and seek other opinions. They don’t give up. On the other hand, there are also those who, believing they’re experiencing a large number of symptoms, don’t go to the health center out of fear and genuine panic.

“What if they diagnose me with something serious? What if they tell me that there’s no cure?” As you can see, they’re states in which fear becomes a vicious circle. These situations are usually chronic. This means that there are many people who began to suffer from the fear of getting sick as adolescents, and it continued into adulthood.

If they don’t receive any help, their lives become increasingly limited. They focus exclusively on their own bodies and bodily sensations, looking for symptoms that they later try to compare with the clinical descriptions they find on the Internet. However, we must again mention the fact that we no longer talk about hypochondriasis, as this pejorative term has been removed from diagnostic manuals. Nowadays, more factors are taken into account.

The symptoms of illness anxiety disorder

Until fairly recently, we called the individual who was fearful of contracting any and every disease a hypochondriac. Now, it’s recognized that there’s far more behind this behavior. For instance, emotional suffering, problems performing daily tasks, and being unable to perform at work without worrying about viruses and bacteria.

To make an adequate diagnosis of illness anxiety, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) tells us to look at the following criteria:

  • The patient is in a state of constant worry that’s lasted for more than six months. Their anguish lies in contracting different diseases or suffering from certain psychological disorders.
  • They’re easily alarmed by any discomfort. For example, itchy skin, stomach pain, a twitching eye, sore throat, cough, etc.
  • Despite experiencing these fears, they don’t have any real illness or medical manifestation. When they’re tested, they don’t show any ailment.
  • They usually pay frequent visits to the doctor. On the other hand, there are those who have a high fear of medical consultations and avoid them. This intensifies their discomfort even more. “I think I’m sick, but I don’t want to go to the doctor as I don’t want them to tell me I’m sick”.

The origin

There’s often more than one condition behind illness anxiety disorder. Indeed, the patient usually suffers from certain problems and psychological conditions that they’ve been experiencing for years. A study conducted by the University of Madhya Pradesh (India) claimed that:

  • Many people who visit their doctor suffer from anxiety due to illness.
  • About 18 percent of these patients have a family history of the same clinical condition.
  • 32.1 percent suffered abuse in childhood.
  • 25 percent also suffered from depression.
  • 23 percent suffered from some type of anxiety disorder (phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, etc).

In other words, illness anxiety disorder has certain triggers behind it which, in turn, cause more psychological problems.

Woman thinking if she suffers from worry anxiety

How is it treated?

Fortunately, there are solutions for those suffering from illness anxiety disorder. It always involves psychological therapy, more specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy. This approach makes it easier for them to manage their anxiety, leaving aside the kinds of dysfunctional thoughts that intensify problems and suffering.

Gradually, the sufferer learns to employ healthier reasoning, reflections, and thoughts. Moreover, their behavior adjusts and becomes more confident, and they free themselves from the fear of getting sick. It’s essential to treat the root that may be behind this situation (childhood abuse, traumatic experiences, etc).

Anxiolytics or antidepressants (such as serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can also be used in a complementary way. However, they should only be prescribed by a doctor. As a matter of fact, the most effective treatment in these cases is always psychological therapy.

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  • American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2013. Manual diagnóstico y estadístico de los trastornos mentales (DSM-5)
  • Pandey, S., Parikh, M., Brahmbhatt, M., & Vankar, G. K. (2017). Clinical study of illness anxiety disorder in medical outpatients. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy19(4), 32–41. https://doi.org/10.12740/APP/76932
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    World Psychiatry. 2006; 5(1): 47–50
  • Scarella TM, Laferton JAC, Ahern DK, Fallon BA, Barsky A. The relationship of hypochondriasis to anxiety, depressive,
    and somatoform disorders. Psychosomatics. 2016; 57(2): 200–207.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.