Now that cold and flu season is here, which typically peaks between December and March according to the CDC, it’s normal to feel a little more worried than usual about the possibility of getting sick. Of course, there are some people who take their worrying to a whole new level by imagining an illness they might (but probably don’t) have and then exaggerating their symptoms and seeking out diagnosis or treatment to feed their belief that they’re indeed sick. Th medical term for this condition is called hypochondria.
According to WebMD, the internet has only made hypochondria worse, giving rise to a whole new type of modern hypochondriac with its own special term. “Cyberchondria” is now used to describe internet savvy hypochondriacs who flock to Google and other sources to investigate illnesses or conditions they’re worried about.
It turns out that hypochondriacs and cyberchondriacs actually do make themselves sick, but not quite in the way we all might think. Rather than contracting the illness they’re actually worried about, a new study suggests it’s the state of worry or anxiety itself that has a negative impact on health — specifically on the heart.
Researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway surveyed over 7,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 60 by asking them questions about their health, lifestyle and anxiety. A follow-up with the subjects over a decades later revealed that those who reported high levels of health anxiety at the start of the survey were 73 percent more likely to developing heart disease compared to those who had a healthy state of mind, even if other health risks like poor diet and smoking were accounted for.
While only 3 percent of subjects with a healthy state of mind suffered from heart disease over the course of the decade-long period, that number was twice as high at 6 percent among those with health anxiety. And the higher the level of anxiety that subjects reported, the greater their risk was for developing heart disease.
Anxiety is known to increase people’s chances of developing heart disease, but this was the first study to look at the effects of health anxiety. Interestingly, the researchers hypothesized that those with health anxiety might have a reduced risk because they tend to be hyperaware of their health and therefore might take better care of themselves than people who might typically ignore certain symptoms, but the results of the study proved otherwise.
When it comes to health anxiety, the researchers recommend seeking proper diagnosis and treatment for the anxiety itself rather than obsessively worrying about any physical illness or seeking out diagnosis or treatment for symptoms related to that illness. Hypochondriacs and those with any level of healthy anxiety would also very likely benefit from consciously limiting or completely avoiding the urge to diagnose symptoms themselves by looking them up on the internet.
Although the study was purely observational and doesn’t directly prove that health anxiety causes heart disease, the findings support the idea that anxiety is harmful to health. One big limitation was the possibility of other mental health problems contributing to anxiety, making it difficult to separate health anxiety from other forms of anxiety.
It’s only natural to feel a bit anxious when you suspect that you could be coming down with something. But if your anxiety is significant enough to trigger unhealthy habits and affect your everyday life, it might just be time to think about getting professional help to get your state of mind back on a path toward health and happiness.