health anxiety

A new study examines whether cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a commonly used mental health intervention, is effective in treating health anxiety.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a mental health intervention used to improve personal coping strategies, cognitive patterns, behaviours, and emotion regulation. While originally designed to help treat depression, CBT is now used to treat a variety of mental health conditions.

The CBT model is built on the dynamic relationship between thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. Individuals with mental health conditions often experience negative emotional and behavioural reactions to events which cause them distress. During CBT, individuals are taught to identify and change their thoughts and beliefs related to these stressful events. CBT encourages individuals to identify distortions in their thinking and to consider situations from different perspectives to reduce their emotional problems.

Health anxiety is a growing issue in the general public. In the UK, researchers estimate that one in every five people in a clinic setting has abnormal health anxiety which can be exacerbated by researching or ‘googling’ symptoms online. These symptoms often include chest pain or headaches that persist despite no physical cause.

The CHAMP (cognitive behavioural therapy for health anxiety in medical patients) study recently examined the effectiveness of a modified form of CBT for those who worry about their health and frequently seek reassurance of their health from their clinicians. This study assessed 444 patients in hospitals in England. Patients were randomly assigned to receive four to ten one-hour CBT sessions or to continue going to the clinic as usual. The results were recently published in the British Medical Journal.

After one year, the group of patients who received CBT had reduced anxiety and depression scores. This benefit gradually diminished over time, but still remained significant five years after treatment. Additionally, patients who received care from nurses also showed a moderate reduction in anxiety scores.

In conclusion, this study found CBT effective for treating individuals with health anxiety. Importantly, CBT is an inexpensive strategy to implement in clinics which will greatly benefit patients suffering from anxiety. Symptoms of health anxiety are often misinterpreted as those of physical conditions (ie. chest pain, difficulty breathing), so, many individuals with health anxiety frequently attend clinics and hospitals in search of a physical diagnosis. Treating health anxiety through CBT can reduce the number of hospital visits for these individuals, allowing the allocation of resources to those with severe physical ailments.

Written by Neeti Vashi, BSc

Reference: Iacobucci G. CBT is effective for treating patients with health anxiety, study shows. BMJ. 2017 Sep 7;358:j4177. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j4177. PubMed PMID: 28883076.

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