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We have already seen that all else being equal, an individual who suffers significant childhood trauma is at greater risk than average of developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood. In this article, I will look specifically at health anxiety and what types of childhood experiences may put individuals at increased likelihood of developing it. With regard to this, the first question to answer, of course, is :
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety used to be referred to as hypochondria; however, this term is becoming increasingly obsolete due to its somewhat pejorative connotations. For a person to be diagnosed with health anxiety (and such a diagnosis, of course, can only be carried out by an appropriately qualified professional) s/he generally has to be preoccupied with thoughts centering around illness (i.e. a belief s/he is ill or an overwhelming conviction that s/he will imminently become ill) despite reliable, medical reassurances that this is not the case.
Furthermore, this preoccupation causes the individual significant distress and impairs normal, day-to-day functioning.
Which Childhood Experiences Make It More Likely That An Individual Will Develop Health Anxiety?
- individuals who suffered a serious illness as a child and were traumatized by the experience are at increased risk of developing health anxiety in adulthood.
- those who, in childhood, had a primary carer who was excessively anxious about their health, or more generally overprotective, are at increased risk of developing health anxiety in adulthood.
- those who, in childhood, experienced a close family member (such as a sibling, mother, or father) being seriously ill are at increased risk of going on to develop health anxiety.
- those who, as children, had parents who excessively shielded them from the reality of health problems (e.g. parents who never talked about their own illnesses or the illnesses/deaths of other family members, including never allowing the child to attend funerals) are more likely to go on to develop health anxiety
- those who up with parents who, to an excessive degree, feel the need to continually (and with excessive frequency) emphasize the vital and crucial importance in life of having one’s health.
- a study conducted by Murray et al. (2004) and involving 219 women in a primary care outpatient clinic who completed self-report questionnaires found that women with a history of being sexually assaulted were at significantly greater risk of developing health anxiety than average (as well as significantly higher than average rates of somatization and physical complaints).
Childhood experience is not the only factor connected to the development of health anxiety in later life; other factors that may contribute or be involved include :
1) Personality traits (characteristics): e.g. a proneness to worry or intolerance of uncertainty
2) Chemicals in the brain (especially low serotonin activity)
3) Abnormal brain processes associated with low serotonin activity leading to excessive rumination (over-thinking)
4) Genetic predisposition: it is possible some people may genetically inherit a tendency towards obsessive-like thinking.
Therapies available for the treatment of health anxiety include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and trauma-focused therapy (CFT). However, sometimes (depending upon the individual’s particular constellation of psychological problems) other forms of psychotherapy may be more appropriate.
Also, because it is thought that serotonin-level abnormalities may sometimes be involved with health anxiety, antidepressants are sometimes prescribed for its treatment (under the guidance, of course, of an appropriately qualified professional).
Relationship of sexual assault history to somatic symptoms and health anxiety in women.General Hospital Psychiatry Volume 26, Issue 3, May–June 2004, Pages 178-183 Murray B.et al.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).