Illness and Somatic Anxiety Disorder

Man with illness and somatic anxiety disorder with a doctor

I have loved ones that suffer from illness and somatic anxiety disorder. In my opinion, this is one of the worse types of anxiety. Any twitch or pain makes the person suffering from it believe they have a terrible disease or health issue. This, of course, causes anxiety which causes more physical symptoms to appear which causes more anxiety. So begins a vicious circle.

Illness anxiety disorder is sometimes also called hypochondria. The Manual of Mental Disorders does not use the term hypochondria anymore. That is a good thing. I don’t know about anyone else, but the word hypochondria makes me think of the hypochondriacs that are portrayed on television or in the movies.

The nerdy, overprotected, smothered by his mom guy that believes he has or will contract all kinds of diseases. That stereotype does a huge disservice to this type of anxiety. It affects all kinds of people from all walks of life.

What is the difference between illness and somatic anxiety order?

You will notice that I also used the word somatic. Professionals say that someone with somatic anxiety has physical symptoms that cause them worry. Someone with illness anxiety may not have any physical symptoms or may have mild physical symptoms.

The person with illness anxiety is more worried about their heart or kidney or other organs in the body even though they may not have any physical pain. Someone with somatic anxiety has actual pain but becomes obsessed with thinking the pain is something worse. For instance, if a person with somatic anxiety has a headache for a couple of days, they become convinced that it’s a brain tumor and may research their symptoms obsessively.

What is the reason for illness and somatic anxiety disorder?

What causes this kind of anxiety? Specialists believe that a previous serious illness, trauma, childhood abuse or other mental health issues can bring on illness/somatic anxiety. See my post Is your anxiety a brain chemistry thing? for more information.

I have 2 family members that suffer from this type of anxiety. My sister has somatic anxiety and my brother has illness anxiety. My sister already had generalized anxiety. She started having feelings of anxiety in her teenage years, although not specifically somatic anxiety. While in her late teens, she witnessed our father have a major heart attack. He passed away right in front of her. Then, after a few years, her young husband also passed away from a previously unknown heart condition.

Going to the doctor doesn’t help

This has caused her to have some really bad episodes of anxiety. Pain in her legs became bone cancer (thanks to Dr.Google) a sore throat became throat cancer. These thoughts would then trigger more physical symptoms and then the vicious circle I spoke about earlier would begin. Emergency room trips, doctor’s visits and many “talking through’s” with me didn’t help. The test results missed something, the doctor didn’t investigate her symptoms thoroughly enough and on and on.

My brother had an episode of arrhythmia (improper beating of the heart) one night while going through a stressful time. He could feel his heart beating really fast. This happens to people sometimes and usually lasts for a few seconds. My brothers went on for most of the night. So he ended up going to the ER where he was told he had arrhythmia. The doctors ended up shocking his heart into beating properly again. After numerous tests, he has been told that he has absolutely no major heart issues. No clogged arteries, no valve issues, nothing. He doesn’t have an irregular heartbeat or any pain. But he worries about his heart constantly no matter what the heart specialist he sees tells him.

Both of my siblings are classic cases of illness and somatic anxiety brought on by trauma and previous illness. It comes and goes. My sister is fine for long periods but when she’s stressed, the anxiety comes back. My brother also has good days but hearing about someone else’s health issues can make him start thinking about his own health.

The best treatment for this kind of anxiety

How can this kind of anxiety be treated? In my opinion, therapy is the best treatment for illness and somatic anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a type of psychotherapy, is what is known as “talk” therapy. Now, this is not the kind of therapy where you lay on a couch and talk about your childhood trauma.

A good CBT therapist will help you to understand if your fears are realistic and if not, will help to find practical ways to replace and overcome the unrealistic thoughts. The therapist will also give you strategies to use in your everyday life. 

Not illness or somatic anxiety disorder but…

I live close to an airport, and sometimes the planes fly low. I was sure that one was going to crash into my house. I don’t know why I was sure that was going to happen, it’s not like it’s a common occurrence. But, every time I heard one fly by and boy are they loud, I was sure that was it- crash into my house time. 

I learned to replace my negative/irrational thoughts with positive ones. So when I hear a plane flying overhead, I’ve trained myself to think good thoughts. For instance I’ll think, “how nice someone is living their dream of traveling”, or “hopefully this time next year I’ll be flying somewhere too” (the last one is harder to feel positive about as I have a fear of flying, but that’s another story). In the beginning, I also used to go and actually watch the plane fly by so I could see that it was not crashing down on my home (I know, why didn’t I just do that before, but when you’re in the grip of an irrational fear you’re not exactly thinking clearly).

Having more rational thoughts

Changing my thoughts didn’t happen overnight. It can take from 3 months to a year for lasting change to happen. Like so many things I do in my life, I decided to “DIY” CBT therapy. Frankly, time and money were both an issue for me, and I read that online CBT therapy can be just as effective as seeing a therapist in person. So, I decided, why not? I’m glad that I did. However, it’s not a magic cure. Every once in a while those thoughts try to creep in. It’s just that whenever the irrational or negative thoughts start, I know what to do to stop them.

However, talking with a good licensed therapist is best, especially if you have severe anxiety or depression. You can enter your zip code or city and state here to find a CBT therapist near you.

Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, I will earn a commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you.

Live Therapy Online

  • Online-Therapy.com: Their name says it all. This therapy site has been around since 2009 and has helped many people. There are 3 subscription plans and they offer a 20% discount for the first month. The treatment is divided into 8 sections and contains all the tools you will need. Only the basic plan does not allow for live therapist chat, but all plans have daily therapist feedback for the sections you do. This is good for someone that feels they need feedback and extra guidance.

Do it Yourself

  • AnxietyHealingProgram.com: This CBT therapy program is more of a do it yourself program than the previous one. There is no subscription, and once you purchase this program, it’s yours, no extra fees. The program is $179.99, and includes a PDF file of the workbook which you will need to print out. If you would like, for an extra $19.99, you can buy the spiral journal instead of printing out the PDF. There are 4 different programs available. Anxiety Healing Program, Anxiety Healing for Teenagers, Anxiety Healing for Young Adults, and Anxiety Healing for Missionaries (this one is good for you if you are a leader and want to help others with their anxiety). The program consists of 2 parts. The first part is 9 instant MP3 audio downloads that you can listen to anywhere. The second part is the workbook and has exercises that go along with each audio session. What’s great about this program is that you can listen to it as many times as you need. You can also have a partner or family member listen so they can help and understand what you’re going through better.
  • For hardcore do it yourselfers, Amazon has a nice selection of self-help books that teach you CBT and some are even free to read if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.
  • Would you rather listen than read? Audible has a lot of the same books about CBT available to listen to and you can sign up for a 30-day free trial. I find myself listening to audiobooks a lot because of time constraints, and because I can listen while I do really boring stuff (like ironing, yes some of us still actually do that).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is not just for Illness and Somatic anxiety. Anyone with any kind of anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues can benefit from CBT.

If you enjoyed my post please click the like button below. If you know of anyone that would benefit from reading this post please share it. Also, if anyone has had any experiences with using CBT for anxiety I’d love to hear about it.

“If you’re going through hell, keep going” Winston Churchill

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