Health anxiety

Reviewed by Natalie Swanson
Last updated 26th April 2024 | Next update due 26th April 2027

Health anxiety is a form of anxiety where someone is constantly worrying about their own or someone else’s health. The fear that they're either unwell or will become unwell starts to take over their life. Here, Juliet Hollingsworth (MSc) explores how health anxiety can affect you and how hypnotherapy can help.

Hypnotherapy for health anxiety

Hypnotherapy is a form of therapy that combines hypnosis with therapy to help you overcome challenges and change negative behaviours and mindset. Hypnosis is the same state of mind as that achieved through meditation. It helps the user to focus and take control of their thoughts and actions. Most hypnotherapists have a thorough understanding of the neuroscience of the autonomic nervous system so they can help you with generalised or specific anxiety, including health anxiety.

What to expect from hypnosis for health anxiety

You should expect your hypnotherapist to conduct a thorough consultation prior to sessions so they get a good idea of your life, past and present. Your hypnotherapist might ask you questions that have more depth than you expected. Hypnotherapists do not do something to you, rather they help you to find your own power to make the desired changes. 

Hypnotherapists working with health anxiety

With the session underway, your hypnotherapist will guide you into hypnosis and will tap into the subconscious part of your brain. They will either continue to speak to your subconscious about something relevant to your situation or ask you questions. Your hypnotherapist will use therapeutic techniques to help you understand your thoughts, feelings and emotions that have been deeply rooted in your subconscious. They can then help redirect your mind so you begin to feel in control of your thinking. 

Many people fear letting go of their health anxiety because of the fear that something is wrong. They worry that when they remove the focus on health, the illness will take hold and their worst nightmare will come true. For people with health anxiety, this fear seems only natural - it is our subconscious protection mechanism looking out for us. However, when these thoughts are interfering with daily life, they can become problematic. Therefore, your hypnotherapist will spend time helping you to feel safe living with a fair and rational focus on health, and confident in your body’s ability to remain healthy. 

Hypnosis is generally a relaxing experience but it is possible that your session disturbed some deep-rooted emotions. Your hypnotherapist will have the experience to help you navigate this. 

Your hypnotherapist may also teach you self-hypnosis techniques to use at home. These might include tools to help you when you feel anxious and ideas to stop the habits which increase your health anxiety, such as going for a walk instead of scouring the internet for more health-related information. 

In this video, hypnotherapist Alexandra Vessey (DPH, DNLP, CHPLR) explains how health anxiety can impact us and how hypnotherapy can help.

Do I have health anxiety?

The NHS suggests you may have health anxiety if you do any of the following:

  • Constantly worry about your health.
  • Regularly check your body for signs of illness.
  • Regularly seek reassurance that you are not ill. 
  • Worry that the doctor or medical tests missed something.
  • Obsessively research health information.
  • Avoid anything to do with serious illness.
  • Behave as if you are ill.

The DSM - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also outlines some diagnostic criteria for two listed disorders (which cover what we colloquially describe as 'health anxiety') for clinicians in the US. These are illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder. 

Illness anxiety disorder

The diagnostic criteria for illness anxiety disorder include:

  • A preoccupation with having or getting a serious illness. 
  • Your physical symptoms are not present, or they're mild. If you have another medical condition or there is a high risk of you developing a medical condition, your preoccupation is excessive or disproportionate.
  • You have a high level of anxiety about your health.
  • You perform excessive health-related behaviours, for example, repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness. Or you may avoid doctors' appointments and/or hospitals. 
  • Your preoccupation with illness has lasted for at least six months, even though the specifics might have changed.

Within this diagnosis, there are two types of illness anxiety, those who seek care and frequently visit the doctor or request tests, and those who avoid medical care.

Somatic symptom disorder

The diagnostic criteria for somatic symptom disorder include:

  • At least one somatic (physical) symptom that is distressing or disrupts your daily life.
  • Out of proportion and persistent thoughts about the seriousness of the symptoms.
  • Persistently high levels of anxiety about symptoms or health.
  • Spending excessive amounts of time and energy focusing on the symptoms or health concerns.
  • Your symptomatic state (though symptoms might change) is consistent.

In this case, the diagnosis varies from mild, moderate or severe, depending on how many of the symptoms are present.

Understanding whether you may be experiencing health anxiety (or if it's something else) can help you decide if hypnotherapy is right for you. 

What is cyberchondria? 

Cyberchondria is a term that is on the rise as information becomes more easily accessible online. It’s the term used to describe people who excessively research symptoms on the internet and go on to self-diagnose medical concerns. This can lead to the person becoming stuck in a cycle of anxiety. They typically believe that they have a medical problem which exacerbates anxiety, rather than seeking further advice from a GP.

It’s important to note that this is not an official diagnosis, but it stems from ‘hypochondria’. This is the negative connotation that someone is ‘overreacting’ about their health, rather than recognising that health anxiety is a debilitating illness for those living with it. 

If you’re constantly checking parts of your body that worry you throughout the day, this can be extremely draining. Your fear is so severe that you can’t overcome the compulsion to act upon it. This is why health anxiety is often compared to OCD.

- Writer Kat Nicholls explores the power of hypnotherapy for health anxiety.

What other support is available for health anxiety?

One of the most challenging aspects of health anxiety is that anxiety itself causes physical symptoms. When the anxiety you feel about your health causes you to develop these symptoms, such as a pounding heart or a headache, you believe the symptoms to be a part of your perceived illness. This exacerbates the feeling of fear and the cycle continues. 

Of course, like with all approaches, hypnotherapy might not be best suited to you. If the feelings you experience interfere with your daily life, you should seek advice from your GP who can discuss other treatment options available. This might include a referral to a cognitive behavioural therapist or other talking therapist, counsellor, support group or for guided self-help. There are also many charities in the UK that offer help, such as the Samaritans, MIND, Calm, Young Minds and AnxietyUK. You can find a list of these helplines on Hypnotherapy Directory.

Taking the first step sometimes feels huge, but remember that it's OK to take even a tiny step and see how that feels. When it is comfortable, take another tiny step. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a place with the support you need to get through it. 

This page was first written in January 2022 by hypnotherapist Juliet Hollingsworth MSc, Dhp.

Further resources 

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