To determine a diagnosis, you'll likely have a physical exam and any tests your doctor recommends. Your doctor or other health care provider can help determine if you have any medical conditions that require treatment.
Your doctor may also refer you to a mental health provider. He or she may:
- Conduct a psychological evaluation to talk about your symptoms, stressful situations, family history, fears or concerns, relationship problems, and other issues affecting your life
- Have you fill out a psychological self-assessment or questionnaire
- Ask you about alcohol, drug or other substance use
Criteria for diagnosis
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, emphasizes these points in the diagnosis of illness anxiety disorder:
- You're preoccupied with having or getting a serious illness.
- You're easily alarmed about your personal health status.
- You don't have physical symptoms, or if you do, they're only mild.
- If you have another medical condition or a strong family history of a medical condition, your preoccupation about this is excessive.
- You perform excessive health-related behaviors, such as repeatedly checking your body for signs of disease, or you avoid medical appointments for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness.
- Your illness preoccupation has lasted for at least six months, even though the specific illness you fear may change during that time.
- Your illness preoccupation is not better explained by another mental disorder, such as somatic symptom disorder, panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder.
The goal of treatment is to improve your symptoms and your ability to function in daily life. Psychotherapy, in particular cognitive behavioral therapy, can be helpful for illness anxiety disorder. Sometimes medications may be added.
Because physical sensations can be related to psychological distress and health anxiety, psychotherapy — also called talk therapy — can be effective for illness anxiety disorder. A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be effective in learning skills to manage illness anxiety disorder. CBT can be provided individually or in a group.
CBT can help you:
- Identify your fears and beliefs about having a serious medical disease
- Learn alternate ways to view your body sensations by working to change unhelpful thoughts
- Become more aware of how your worries affect you and your behavior
- Change the way you respond to your body sensations and symptoms
- Learn skills to cope with and tolerate anxiety and stress
- Reduce avoidance of situations and activities due to physical sensations
- Reduce behaviors of frequently checking your body for signs of illness and repeatedly seeking reassurance
- Improve daily functioning at home, at work, in relationships and in social situations
- Address other mental health disorders, such as depression
Other therapies such as behavioral stress management and exposure therapy also may be helpful.
Antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may help treat illness anxiety disorder. Medications to treat mood or anxiety disorders, if present, also may help.
Talk with your doctor about medication options and the possible side effects and risks.
Lifestyle and home remedies
While illness anxiety disorder benefits from professional treatment, you can take some self-care steps:
- Work with your provider. Work with your doctor or mental health provider to determine a regular schedule for visits to discuss your concerns and build a trusting relationship. Discuss setting reasonable limits on tests, evaluations and specialist referrals. Avoid seeking advice from multiple doctors or emergency room visits that can make your care harder to coordinate and may subject you to duplicate testing. With your provider's help, find different ways to manage your worries other than excessive medical testing or avoidance of medical care.
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques. Learning stress management and relaxation methods, such as progressive muscle relaxation, may help reduce anxiety.
- Get physically active. A graduated activity program may have a calming effect on your mood, reduce your anxiety and help improve your physical functioning.
- Participate in activities. Stay involved in work, social and family activities.
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. Substance use can make your care more difficult. Talk to your health care provider if you need help quitting.
- Avoid searching the Internet for possible diseases. The vast amount of health information that may or may not be related to your situation can cause confusion and anxiety. If you have symptoms that concern you, talk to your doctor at your next scheduled appointment.
Preparing for your appointment
As part of your medical evaluation, your primary care provider may refer you to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, for evaluation and treatment.
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment and what to expect from your doctor or mental health provider.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Your symptoms, including when they first occurred and how they impact your daily life
- Key personal information, including traumatic events in your past and any stressful major events
- Medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions that you have
- Medications, vitamins and other supplements you take, and the doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
Ask a trusted family member or friend to go with you to your appointment, if possible, to lend support and help you remember information.
Questions to ask a mental health provider
Ask your provider questions such as:
- Do I have illness anxiety disorder?
- What treatment approach do you recommend?
- Would therapy be helpful in my case?
- If you're recommending therapy, how often will I need it and for how long?
- If you're recommending medications, are there any possible side effects?
- For how long will I need to take medication?
- How will you monitor whether my treatment is working?
- Are there any self-care steps I can take to help manage my condition?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can have?
- What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
A doctor or mental health provider may ask:
- What are your symptoms, and when did they first occur?
- How do your symptoms affect your life, such as at school, at work and in personal relationships?
- Have you or any of your close relatives been diagnosed with a mental health disorder?
- Have you been diagnosed with any medical conditions?
- Do you use alcohol or recreational drugs? How often?
- Do you get regular physical activity?