Health anxiety - how hypnotherapy can help

“Health anxiety: the silent, disabling epidemic” – the prestigious British Medical Journal is not usually given to overblown headlines. So an editorial, appearing in the current edition (BMJ2016;353) deserves our attention. The authors, from Sweden, Denmark and the UK describe the phenomenon of patients, caught in a cycle of medical investigation, which reveals no physical illness - and yet they are unable to live their lives without crippling fear of disease and worse. 

The condition is on the rise. An Australian study of hospital outpatients showed prevalence increasing from 12% to 20% over a four year period. The BMJ editorial points a finger at “the increased pathologisation of our society, combined with internet browsing; cyberchondria.”

“People with health anxiety pay selective attention to the most serious explanation of symptoms, even though these may be very uncommon”. So it seems we are Googling our way to needless worry. The dreaded internet strikes again!

The authors recommend that doctors do not merely exclude disease, but also make a positive diagnosis of health anxiety, using established criteria when appropriate. In this way, people can be directed toward effective interventions. Doctors in the US have recently moved in a similar direction.

For decades, hypnotherapy has helped many patients with specific medical phobias. MRI claustrophobia, blood, needle and mask phobias are common. It may now be time to extend those benefits to people with the more general form of health anxiety. Hypnotherapy is an excellent way of replacing harmful thought-habits with more reasonable ones. Hypnotherapy can offer a tool kit of techniques for anxiety reduction and sleep improvement.

It is becoming clear that it is no longer acceptable to dismiss patients as “merely hypochondriacs”. It is time to recognise health anxiety as a condition which needs to be addressed. The authors conclude, “All patients with health anxiety should now be offered the many established, effective, evidence-based treatments.”

I agree!

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