Freedom From Health Anxiety by Karen Lynn Cassiday uses a primarily cognitive behavioural therapy approach to support people dealing with illness anxiety disorder (formerly known as hypochondriasis) and other forms of health anxiety.
The book begins with a checklist to assess the negative impact of health anxiety in the areas of negative reactions of others, feedback from others about anxiety being a problem, negative effects of anxiety in daily life, checking behaviours, avoidance behaviours, and financial cost. There’s also an exercise to identify the ways in which illness anxiety leads to avoidance behaviours.
The author explains what health anxiety is (intolerance of uncertainty is a big part of it) and what it is not (secondary gain or Munchausen’s syndrome, for example). Concepts throughout the book are illustrated with example scenarios based on clients that the author has worked with in her therapy practice. Also scattered throughout the book are exercises aimed at helping you raise your resilience.
Exposure therapy is emphasized as an intervention, and the author explains that rather than constructing a hierarchy of exposures, it’s more effective to tackle exposures in random order. Guidance is provided on how to set up effective exposures in order to develop habituation (getting used to feared stimuli) and inhibitory learning (suppressing thoughts/behaviours like reassurance-seeking and avoidance).
There’s a chapter devoted to giving up reassurance-seeking. The author writes, “Trying to get reassurance is like trying to walk across an interpersonal minefield in which the other person has no map.” She explains, “if you give your worry the cookie of reassurance, then you can expect only one outcome: more illness anxiety.” Exposure and response prevention (which is commonly used in the treatment of OCD) is presented as a way to cut down on reassurance-seeking.
The author helps readers to distinguish between what constitutes a helpful conversation with health professionals and what constitutes harmful reassurance-seeking, which I thought was a useful distinction to make. Sometimes there are reality-based health concerns that need to be dealt with, and the book offers tips on how to take reasonable precautions without overdoing it.
There’s a chapter devoted to increasing tolerance of uncertainty, which can free up a lot of cognitive resources that would get sucked into attempts to eliminate uncertainty in making decisions. There’s also a chapter on enhancing your recovery, which offers suggestions for interoceptive exposures, i.e. creating feared physical sensations. Gratitude is explored as a way to build greater joy and resilience. The final chapter explores additional treatment options, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), medications, and complementary and alternative therapies like acupuncture, Ayurveda, tai chi, and qigong. I’m definitely a fan of a multi-pronged approach to mental health issues.
The author comes across as someone who has significant clinical knowledge and experience specifically related to illness anxiety. Her tone is optimistic, but without that false overconfidence that sometimes bugs me about CBT-based books. She acknowledges that this will be a difficult journey, but seems to have hope that readers will be able to find the strength inside themselves to push through with treatment and make progress. The book felt very balanced and realistic, and the author has quite a comforting written presence.
Illness anxiety isn’t something I deal with personally, but I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with this disorder, or with health anxiety more generally.
Freedom from Health Anxiety is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.
You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.
14 thoughts on “Book Review: Freedom from Health Anxiety”
“Harmful reassurance-seeking”, it’s a tricky one isn’t it because there could be a time where you genuinely have an issue and you should seek medical advice, but you might not know what’s a “real” potential issue and what’s not when living with health anxiety. Not an easy one to deal with, especially as there’s so, so much in the media, shops, society, employment even around health and health fads and diet and health checks etc. We’re bombarded with it and the anxiety created by that alone is enough, not to mention the instant access to symptom checking online. Great topic to cover, Ashley. xx
It definitely can be a tough area to find the right balance, and Dr. Google can do a lot of harm or a lot of good.
My sister suffers from this. She frequents the doctor’s office weekly. It is difficult to approach and has mostly been written off as a joke which I know it isn’t but what do you do? I would recommend this book but she wouldn’t read it. Her anxiety is managed with medication so her symptoms aren’t as debilitating as they once were but she still seeks the reassurance of doctors too often.
I’m glad the meds help somewhat, but that sounds really tough.
It’s difficult to witness but seems to work for her. At least temporarily.
Seems like rather a no-win situation for people around her. ❤️
What an interesting review. I wonder if the pandemic has given us all a mild case of illness anxiety. At least it feels that way trying to navigate return to crowds and not wearing masks. There aren’t enough at-home tests to provide reassurance so we need another form of therapy.
Thank you for presenting this interesting topic and book, Ashley!
I’m inclined to think the same thing about the pandemic.
I’m the opposite. I hadn’t had my thyroid tested since before Covid. I got blood drawn last week and the next day at 8am the doctor’s office showed up on caller I.D. and I thought, Oh no! I’m a goner! “Just wanted to let you know it’s normal.” Then I started googling, “chest pains.”
When health care started getting more difficult to get during the pandemic, I stopped giving a shit because I just couldn’t be bothered. When I was in hospital was the first time I’d gotten bloodwork done since pre-pandemic days, because I just hadn’t had enough fucks to give.
Might be something good for me to check out. I’ve suffered greatly from health anxiety for years now. The problem is that I always get some oddly specific symptom that sends me down the rabbit hole to nowhere. I’m starting to burn out, though. I think I went so overboard with the obsession that I’m getting tired of it. It’s not a fun way to live, always thinking you’re dying. Doctors screw with you too–they urgently send you for tests, then treat you like you’re crazy when the results are fine. Well YOU are the one who sent me! Anyways, it’s cool to read about it… get some reassurance 😂
Yeah, it definitely doesn’t help matters that doctors either freak out or don’t give a shit at all, and there isn’t much in the middle.