Heads up, hypochondriacs: In case constant worry about your health wasn’t bad enough, a recent study shows fretting may put you at a greater risk for illness.
Researchers from Norway found that those who experience what’s clinically referred to as “health anxiety” or “illness anxiety disorder,” were twice as likely to experience a heart attack or acute chest pains than those who didn’t worry about their wellness. The results were published in the journal BMJ Open this month.
The study authors analyzed health data of more than 7,000 people who took part in the Norwegian Hordaland Health Study, a long-term study conducted by the National Health Screening Service and the University of Bergen. Researchers examined subjects’ health status over a 13-year period and then assessed their health anxiety levels. The participants were also given a physical checkup during the time period of the study, which measured height, weight, blood pressure and included blood tests.
After adjusting for known risk factors (like blood pressure levels, for example), researchers discovered that those with high levels of health anxiety had a 70 percent increased risk for heart disease. This “underlines the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment for health anxiety,” the researchers wrote.
There are of course a few stipulations with this research. The study’s results do not explain cause and effect, meaning there’s no insight into why being a hypochondriac is associated with a greater chance of developing a serious heart condition. And as Science of Us points out, the population sample isn’t totally representative of different ethnicities, lifestyle habits or family history, factors that arguably have a greater influence on heart disease risk.
The research does highlight the potentially negative and profound effects of anxiety on the body. While the researchers worried patients would incorrectly interpret anxiety symptoms as signs of heart disease, they also pointed out that physiological components of anxiety can have a cumulative effect on heart risks.
Cortisol, the hormone released when a person undergoes severe anxiety, has also been linked to sleep problems, weight gain and memory impairment. If anything, the findings are further evidence that physical and mental health and inextricably linked.
If worrying is interfering with your everyday life, it might be helpful to reach out to a mental health professional or even trying an online therapy service. Health anxiety can be manageable with proper support using techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. What’s important is that you confront anxiety head on.
“Avoidance is not a good strategy,” David Spiegel, Stanford Medicine’s associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, previously told The Huffington Post. “The more you deal with things that stress you out, the more mastery you have over them.”
And, whatever you do, step away from Dr. Google ― it’s likely only making it worse.