Health Anxiety and Dangers of Self-Diagnosis

Anxiety is a psychiatric condition encompassing marked stress, uneasiness, fear, and worry. Millions of people worldwide are diagnosed with anxiety disorder, making it one of the most common mental health illnesses.

Image Credit: Emily frost / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Emily frost / Shutterstock

There are several types of anxiety disorders which differ in terms of the objects or situations which cause the symptoms, but all feature high levels of anxiety which affects an individual’s ability to manage their daily life.

The most prevalent form of anxiety is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and is characterized by excessive worry and anxiety about several situations or activities.

Due to increasing awareness about prevalence of mental health issues such as anxiety, and an increased access to the internet, more individuals now turn to online resources to look up their symptoms, and even diagnose themselves.

In 2017, Google and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) worked together to create a self-assessment tool for users to see whether they should seek help for their depressive symptoms. Similar resources are also available for different anxiety conditions.

Diagnostic Manuals and Anxiety Disorder Criteria

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the tenth edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) are the two current diagnostic manuals used by healthcare practitioners to diagnose someone with an anxiety disorder.

Within these manuals, are a series of diagnostic criteria which an individual must meet in order to be officially diagnosed with a specific mental health condition.

A significant problem with self-diagnosis of health anxiety is the rate of false positives, by which the users diagnose themselves with a mental health condition that they do not actually have.

This may occur due to lack of consideration of the full diagnostic criteria. For example, to be diagnosed with GAD, the individual must experience marked feelings of tension and apprehension about everyday events on more days than not for at least six months.

Specifically, in the ICD-10, at least four symptoms out of the following categories must also be present: autonomic arousal symptoms such as sweating; symptoms concerning chest and abdomen such as chest pain; symptoms concerning the brain such as fear of losing control; general symptoms such as hot flushes; symptoms of tension such as restlessness; and other non-specific symptoms such as persistent irritability.

If a self-diagnostic tool is over-simplified, and therefore does not contain the full criteria, individuals may incorrectly self-diagnose their symptoms.

Co-Morbidity and Misdiagnosis of Anxiety

Co-morbidity is often an issue that needs to be considered when diagnosing mental health disorders. It is quite common for those with anxiety to also be diagnosed with depression and vice versa.

When using tools to self-diagnose a mental health disorder, the influence of other psychological conditions may be overlooked.

Similarly, whether the symptoms meet the criteria for other conditions such as panic disorders or obsessive compulsive disorders or not, must also be taken into consideration, as they share similar symptoms and criteria overlapping to health anxiety.

Another danger with self-diagnosis of health anxiety is that the individuals may misdiagnose the anxiety disorder for a medical condition. For instance, hyperthyroidism is marked by heart palpitations, irritability, chest pain, and shortness of breath which overlap with some of the diagnostic criteria of GAD.

By misdiagnosing their symptoms, some may turn to self-help techniques to manage their perceived anxiety, instead of receiving the correct diagnosis and accompanying treatments for their medical condition, if they were to see a healthcare professional.

Benefits of Self-Diagnosis

Arguably, self-diagnosis of health anxiety may be beneficial in terms of narrowing down the symptoms an individual has in relation to different mental disorders.

For example, someone concerned about their symptoms may research for themselves, or even complete a self-screening tool, and present the findings to their clinician who can then carry out a formal assessment.

There is a large number of criteria which individuals need to meet in order to be diagnosed with mental health disorders such as health anxiety.

Self-diagnostic tools may create further complications if people use them as a replacement to seeking support from doctors or psychologists. However, the movement in the direction of increasing discussion and awareness around anxiety is probably one that is being welcomed by the clinicians.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Chloe Bennett

Written by

Chloe Bennett

Chloe graduated from Bangor University with a Class I degree in Psychology. After studying the topic for five years, she developed a keen interest in clinical and cognitive psychology, and is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Bangor.

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