Afraid of getting a serious disease? An introduction to illness anxiety disorder
Afraid of getting a serious disease? An introduction to illness anxiety disorder

People that struggle with illness anxiety disorder or health anxiety (formerly known as hypochondriasis) are continuously scared of having a terrible disease such as cancer. Ordinary feelings that you might experience in your body like a cramp, a little lump, or an itch, are a confirmation that something is wrong and that it is time to panic. Symptoms such as a headache, a sore throat, a muscle strain, or coughing are quickly seen as severe or even deadly diseases. Even after visiting a doctor to check up on these symptoms, the fear of having a serious disease remains. People with an illness anxiety disorder are looking for reassurance, but often don’t find it. This can have a worsening effect on their fear.

Recognizing illness anxiety disorder

How can you recognize illness anxiety disorder:

  • an unusual amount of attention towards ordinary symptoms
  • constantly worrying about having a possible disease (for at least 6 months consecutively)
  • avoiding or obsessively looking up information about diseases
  • spending a lot of time on checking your body, and developing preventive behaviour such as washing your hands and avoiding sick people or hospitals
  • regularly visiting a doctor, not believing the doctor’s advice, or avoiding the doctor out of fear for diagnosis 
  • asking for a complete body check-up, like scans or even operations
  • exaggerating the effects of an actual disease


At times when the anxiety predominates and a panic attack arises, people experience the following symptoms:

  • palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • tingling or a numb sensation
  • a dry mouth, nausea, an upset stomach, vomiting or diarrhea
  • headaches, flushed cheeks, or fainting
  • the sense of not knowing who or where you are
  • a feeling of losing control, losing your mind, or dying

Panic attacks are one of the core symptoms of illness anxiety disorder. The problem is that these ‘regular’ symptoms of panic attacks could be perceived as symptoms of serious diseases. The fear of diseases often goes hand in hand with feelings of gloom or depression. People feel dispirited and helpless. They assume the worst, although they rarely dare to say it out loud.

Where does the fear come from?

In some families, anxiety disorders are quite common, but it isn’t exactly clear why. Anxiety disorders seem to be hereditary. However, the way someone deals with feelings of fear and physical symptoms seems to have been taught. Upbringing, education, and experiences in the past have a part in this.


An illness anxiety disorder can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy, a proven effective treatment. Over two-thirds of the people with a fear of disease benefit from this method, sometimes in combination with medication. During this treatment, the focus is on confronting the feelings and symptoms in the body, without doing body checkups or asking for reassurance.

Therapy can also exist from:

  • relaxation and breathing techniques
  • learning to put thoughts about diseases in perspective
  • learning and reading about their condition, self-help literature
  • informational meetings


Are you or do you know someone who is constantly living in fear of having a serious or life-threatening disease? Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Visit your local doctor for advice or a referral to a psychologist. Or click here for more information about treatment via NiceDay at various mental health institutions.

Here you can read our psycho-education about dealing with illness anxiety disorder.

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Daniëlle Coenjaerts

I work as a nurse specialist GGZ at NiceDay. I like working on your goals in an approachable way and appreciate honesty and openness. Besides my job I love spending time in nature with my family and my dog.

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