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Health Anxiety and Unrealistic Expectations of Doctors and Tests

The definitive answers you seek will only temporarily reduce your anxiety.

Key points

  • Health anxiety can lead people to hold inaccurate beliefs and assumptions.
  • Intolerance of uncertainty leads health-anxious people to have unreasonable expectations of doctors and medical tests.
  • Improving one's ability to tolerate uncertainty can help address health anxiety.
Source: Pexels/kowalievska

Many of us with health anxiety have unreasonably high expectations of medical professionals and resources. We hope and expect that physicians, scans, examinations or tests should be able to provide a definitive answer about whatever health issue they believe they have. Or we expect that physicians, scans, tests or examinations should be able to offer an explanation for every physical symptom or bodily sensation.

Why do people have unreasonably high expectations of medicine?

When new bodily symptoms or sensations emerge, we want answers and we want them now! When we go to the doctor (especially if doctor-frequenting one of your "safety behaviors" or unhelpful coping mechanisms), we are hoping that the doctors or medical tests will make us feel better by telling us that nothing is wrong. This is called "reassurance-seeking." We want the doctor to hear our concerns and be able to definitively say that nothing is wrong and we are in great health. We may want them to be able to explain every potential bodily symptom or sensation. Or we want every test, examination or scan to be able to tell us for certain that there is nothing wrong with us.

Why is this a problem?

Of course, doctors can't always offer us certainty about our health. Nor can they always give a specific explanation for every random bodily sensation or symptom. What's more, medical examinations and tests also cannot always give us the certainty we are seeking. The results of a scan might, at best, indicate that there is no cause for concern with the specific issue but they aren't necessarily going to reassure us that our health is amazing and we never have to worry again. As amazing as that would be, it isn't possible. The outcome from this is that we often end up feeling more discouraged and frustrated after we've been to the doctor. Because what we are ultimately seeking is certainty about our health and that just is not possible. Not a doctor or test in the world can give you that level of comfort.

How to address this tendency

One of the key issues behind health anxiety is what is called the "intolerance of uncertainty." When someone has a high intolerance of uncertainty, they struggle with the unknown future because they assume it will turn out badly as well as assume that they will not be able to cope with that bad thing. If you have a new symptom or bodily sensation and the doctor or tests can't explain it, then you might assume it is because you have a serious disease that medical resources won't be able to address, which will ultimately lead to your death.

I help my clients target their intolerance of uncertainty around health by modifying their assumptions about uncertainty being a terrible thing. Once you learn to accept, and sometimes even embrace the uncertainty of the future, then you have taken a step in the right direction. Essentially, I help clients to learn that 1) uncertain symptoms or sensations will most likely not be anything to be concerned about (i.e. will be benign/harmless or a minor health issue; 2) if the symptoms are something to be concerned about, they probably won't be catastrophic (i.e. will be something doctors and other medical resources can easily address); and 3) if it is something very serious, I will be able to deal with it more than I assume I will (i.e. there are plenty of medical treatments and interventions available to treat a wide range of health issues, I have personal resources and am stronger than I give myself credit for).

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