Friday, 18 October 2013

Something else to worry about: health anxiety

Today’s edition of medical journal The Lancet includes fascinating research on health anxiety. A study from Imperial College London found that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – a kind of talking therapy that helps people change unhelpful thinking patterns – is very effective at reducing anxiety among hospital patients.
It backs up earlier studies that found that CBT and related mindfulness techniques are really good at helping worrying patients. 
Just as interesting, however, is the fact that such papers talk about patient anxiety, not hypochondria (though they are theoretically the same thing). The word hypochondria has comic associations: they may have started with Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, written in 1889, whose narrator concluded after looking through a medical dictionary that he was “a hospital in myself”.
But today’s hypochondria deserves a less trivialising name. According to the new Lancet research, 5% of people worry obsessively about their health, and up to 20% of people who attend hospitals have abnormal health anxiety. These aren’t odd bods who casually think they have every condition under the sun. They are people – often elderly – made unhappy and sometimes ill by the fear that they have something seriously wrong with them.  According to Peter Tyrer, the author of the Lancet paper, health anxiety is a hidden epidemic. 
British Medical Journal 1864
What’s behind this epidemic? Being confronted with endless information about disease doesn’t help. A paper published this week in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking finds (not surprisingly) that online health information seems to worsen worriers’ anxiety. 
But also at play is our society’s increasing obsession with perfect health and constant messaging from government and charities that we should go to the doctor regularly and have health checks. The NHS’s new health checks programme for 40-74 year olds will only add to the toll of unnecessary worry – with little evidence that anyone’s health will actually benefit.