Illness Related Anxiety

What is it?

Illness Related Anxiety occurs in people who have experienced a significant health concerns such as cancer, autoimmune disease, or even COVID-19. It can also occur in people close to those who were diagnosed with the health issue, particularly household family members or carers. Illness Related Anxiety is different from Hypochondriasis or Health Anxiety in that the threat of disease, illness and even death was real and experienced. This threat to safety and wellbeing can lead to hypersensitivity to symptoms that may suggest an illness is getting worse or returning, and worrying thoughts about the illness. Although the illness was once real, Illness Related Anxiety can often lead to misinterpretation of bodily sensations or hypervigilance to new symptoms. This type of anxiety can lead to a preoccupation with future outcomes or mentally exploring all the possible outcomes from having the illness.

What are the signs and symptoms?

People with Illness Related Anxiety often report feeling “on” all the time, analysing physical sensations, worrying about potential new symptoms, fear of the future, and hypervigilance to bodily changes. Unfortunately, it is often the case that the feared outcome from the illness is likely or a possibility, making it difficult to combat negative thoughts and worries with evidence to the contrary.

Like many anxiety disorders, a person may experience:

  • Increased heart rate or heart palpitations (often described as one’s heart beating out of their chest)
  • Sweating, shaking, trembling, or tense muscles
  • Dry mouth
  • Hot or cold flushes
  • Nausea or “butterflies”
  • Racing thoughts or mental preoccupation
  • Irritability, restlessness, and difficulties with sleep

How do we treat Illness Related Anxiety?

Psychological interventions used to treat and manage anxiety can be just as effective with Illness Related Anxiety. However, your Psychologist will also work with you to better understand your illness or chronic health condition in a sensitive and compassionate manner. This allows for a shared understanding of the problems you are facing physically and how this is impacting on your mental health.

ACT can be useful in the treatment of Illness Related Anxiety, helping you to distance yourself from your anxious thoughts and accept that thoughts can be present without causing you distress. This is complimented by mindfulness-based practices that allow you to be more present and attentive to your everyday life. ACT aims to help a person create a meaningful and enjoyable life despite the physical and emotional pain that comes with having a serious or terminal illness. Where ACT is not helpful or does not meet your treatment goals, CBT can also be used to help deal with unhelpful thinking patterns, maladaptive coping strategies, and you emotional and behavioural reactions to anxiety provoking situations. We can also support you with treatment and medication adherence, behavioural strategies for re-engaging with the things you love in life, and problem-solving strategies for managing your health condition.

Sources

Lebel, S., Mutsaers, B., Tomei, C., Leclair, C. S., Jones, G., Petricone-Westwood, D., Rutkowski, N., Ta, V., Trudel, G., Laflamme, S. Z., Lavigne, A., & Dinkel, A. (2020). Health anxiety and illness-related fears across diverse chronic illnesses: A systematic review on conceptualization, measurement, prevalence, course, and correlates. PioS One, 15(7), 1-48. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234124

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