Dr. Tracy Bennett
Dr. Tracy Bennett
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Your heart is racing, your chest is constricting, and it feels as if you may vomit. The logical part of your brain tries to soothe the panic that’s building in your chest by informing you it’s due to the three cups of coffee you’ve consumed in the last hour. But instead listening to your better instincts, you turn to Google. Article after article feeds your worst fears with information about heart attacks. And just when you think your “diagnosis” can’t get any worse, a dreaded link takes you to a site for cardiac tumors. Before you know it, you are texting your mom to tell her how much you love her and escaping into social media rather than paying your bills. All you can think about is how painful it’s going to be to die from this fatal medical condition. While you are preoccupied with your heart, a muscle spasm occurs in your lower back which drives you into more panic. Now you’re convinced your kidneys are shutting down…

What is Illness Anxiety Disorder?

Illness Anxiety Disorder is a relatively new concept that has replaced the diagnosis of hypochondriasis. Individuals who suffer from this disorder are frequently preoccupied with worry over becoming extremely ill or developing a rare life-threatening condition. They may fixate on a specific part of the body or on a certain medical condition like cancer or tumors.

Although illness anxiety or health anxiety will not kill you, it is extremely distressing and can be debilitating. According to Mayo Clinic (2018), illness anxiety disorder typically develops in early to middle adulthood and can get progressively worse over time.

Symptoms of Illness Anxiety Disorder

  • Repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or disease, this could be checking the breasts for lumps or checking moles constantly
  • Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance
  • Frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illness
  • Worrying excessively about a specific medical condition or your risk of developing a medical condition because it runs in the family
  • Having so much distress about possible illness that it’s hard for you to function.[1]


With information just a click away, it is very easy to become the victim of cyberchondria. Cyberchondriais is a subtype of illness anxiety disorder. It occurs when an individual seeks Dr. Google to research their ache or pain. Cyberchondria refers to preoccupation with a feared illness paired with compulsive Internet browsing.

What the Research Says About Illness Anxiety Disorder

A research team from Microsoft found that, although people reported low levels of health anxiety when Googling their symptoms, the searching provoked anxiety, leading to more compulsive searches. From there, many went on to schedule exploratory doctor or specialist appointments.

Although occasionally triggering unnecessary anxiety, White and Horvitz (2009) pointed out that a benefit of Googling a pre-existing medical diagnosis is opportunity to become acquainted with accurate medical terminology. With this knowledge, a patient can give a more informative history and be a better advocate for appropriate treatment with their doctor.

Illness Anxiety Disorder Often Occurs with Another Psychiatric Disorder

Research has shown that illness anxiety disorder is more commonly comorbid with other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (worrying excessively), panic disorder (impairment due to fear of panic attacks), agoraphobia (avoidance of everyday life experiences due to fear of panic attacks), and even phobias (excessive fears).[3] It can also be seen in those who suffer from depressive symptoms but is most commonly seen in those with anxiety disorders.

Not much information is known on illness anxiety disorder, because individuals who suffer from this will seek medical help first over psychiatric help. That means the client undergoes expensive medical diagnostic procedures rather than cognitive-behavioral therapy (the psychological treatment that is the most effective treatment).

What Causes Illness Anxiety Disorder?

While the exact cause of illness anxiety disorder is still unknown, researchers believe certain events contribute to the early onset of an illness anxiety diagnosis.[2]

Possible contributors:

  • History of abuse as a child
  • Excessive screen use overall
  • A serious medical diagnosis as a child or a parent that had a serious medical diagnosis
  • Experiencing a major stressful life event
  • Excessive worrying related to health
  • Difficulty asserting oneself or impoverished social skills

How to Help Individuals Suffering from Illness Anxiety

  • If your child or teen is demonstrating tendencies, use the tools offered in our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit. They will allow you to identify risk by monitoring browser searches, emails, and inquiring text messages.
  • Limit screen time and Internet access to WebMD and Mayo Clinic
  • Develop a positive, healthy relationship with your doctor by informing them about your tendencies
  • Find a psychologist for cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Develop ways to ease stress, like exercise or meditation

Thank you to CSUCI intern, Kassidy Simpson for providing parents with the knowledge they need to help recognize and become aware of the signs of illness anxiety disorder. If you learned something new from this article, please talk to your friends about us and “like” our GetKidsInternetSafe Facebook page so other parents can find us!

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] [2]Illness anxiety disorder. (2018, June 06). Retrieved April 2, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/illness-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20373782

White, R. W., & Horvitz, E. (2009). Experiences with web search on medical concerns and self-diagnosis. AMIA … Annual Symposium proceedings. AMIA Symposium, 2009, 696–700.

Scarella, T. M., Laferton, J. A., Ahern, D. K., Fallon, B. A., & Barsky, A. (2016). The Relationship of Hypochondriasis to Anxiety, Depressive, and Somatoform Disorders. Psychosomatics,57(2), 200–207. doi:10.1016/j.psym.2015.10.006

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