07/02/2017 12:36 PM AEDT | Updated 07/02/2017 5:22 PM AEDT

When Worrying About Your Health Becomes More Than A Worry

Illness anxiety disorder is a serious mental health condition.

When was the last time you stole a worried thought about the state of your health? Perhaps you noticed a drop in weight or an out-of-the-blue headache. What next?

You may have resorted to Google or brought it up with your GP at your next visit, who -- best case scenario -- gives you the all-clear.

At this point, the worry becomes a short-lived one that usually, with reassurance, will fade or disappear.

"Some worry about health is adaptive and helpful. Health campaigns tend to play on this because they want the general community to be concerned about illness and to be vigilant about protecting their own health," Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the University of New South Wales, Jill Newby, told The Huffington Post Australia.

We wouldn't want to take away all worry about our health.

"This ensures that we can be noticing new symptoms when they start to arise and take this to a doctor to enable early intervention and detect illness early."

For some, however, a normal health concern can become long-lasting and debilitating.

It's now called anxiety illness disorder -- and it comes in many shapes and sizes.

What is it?

Illness anxiety disorder is defined as an overwhelming and crippling fear associated with being or becoming seriously ill. Also coined health anxiety, the term is listed in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), replacing the controversial term, hypochondriasis.

"The new label is more broad and reflects the fact that anxiety about illness is at the heart of this condition," Newby said.

"Some patients will have a specific condition that they are worried about, whereas others have generalised worry about illness and becoming sick."

Whilst prevalence varies, a study of the Australian population found illness anxiety is experienced by approximately one in 20 over their lifetime.

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Illness anxiety is often misdiagnoed as a 'personality trait' rather than a treatable condition.

What are the symptoms?

Before we get to them, it is important to note that these symptoms are not always a sign of anything unusual, according to Newby.

"The way we distinguish helpful worry from unhelpful anxiety is by determining how long the worries are lasting. To be diagnosed, a person needs to be preoccupied with an illness or their health for at least six months," Newby said.

Are those worries becoming debilitating by impacting their social life, work, relationships or physical health?

Those with the disorder will often experience worries that are disproportionate to those around them.

"At this point, we would start to consider it as an anxiety problem," Newby said.

Here are some symptoms from online treatment resource, This Way Up:

  • Feeling anxious and afraid that you have a serious disease that doctors have not been able to diagnose
  • Uncontrollable worry about your physical symptoms
  • Checking your body frequently for signs or illness
  • Focusing excessively on your body and physical symptoms
  • Avoiding conversations, places, people, activities that remind you of your worries about illness

Those with illness anxiety disorder tend to respond poorly to reassurance.

"Usually when someone has a concern about their health, they might go to the doctor who performs a diagnostic test and reassures them that they are okay. These are transient worries... People with the disorder will continue to believe that they have the illness despite this.

"There are also a subset of people who will go out of their way to avoid illness concerns. That only just fuels the vicious cycle of anxiety," Newby said.

How is it treated?

According to Newby, the first step is to always consult a health professional to assess for, manage or rule out serious illness.

That is essential regardless of the condition.

"We always recommend that someone is assessed and talks about their concerns with their GP before embarking on psychological therapy. That is essential regardless of the condition," Newby said.

After seeking information to understand the condition and your own experience, consult a specialist in anxiety disorders.

When it comes to treatment, the most well-researched psychological therapy is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

"This teaches people with the condition how to notice and recognise symptoms of anxiety and how to distinguish those symptoms from concerns about their health that may require follow up," Newby said.

"It teaches them how to challenge their thinking patterns without jumping to worst case scenarios."

For more information on illness anxiety disorder, self-help resources and online CBT programs are available in Australia.