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Stress Management

Concerned About SARS? Don’t Worry, Be Healthy!

Most of us worry about our health from time to time. But a psychological condition called health anxiety becomes a problem when the worries and fears about our health interfere with our lives.

“For some people, a news story about the spread of SARS may be a trigger that can create intense anxiety,” says Dr. Trish Furer of the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. “It may make some people worried about walking through a Chinese neighborhood, or afraid to go near a hospital or touch a doorknob. The sneeze of a nearby office worker could trigger a panic reaction.”

Furer, who is with the anxiety disorders program at the university’s department of clinical health psychology, recently studied what happens when people begin to worry too much about their own health.

People with health anxiety spend a lot of time checking their bodies to make sure they are healthy, according to Furer. They may take their temperatures or their pulse frequently, and may spend hours looking at medical Web sites because of their worries about illness, she added,

Health anxiety can involve mild fears about getting a serious illness and can be quite transient, or can be a much more severe and chronic problem; hypochondriasis, for example, is a severe and persistent form of health anxiety that interferes substantially with a person’s daily life, Furer explained.

“Some people see doctors frequently and have lots of medical tests,” she said. “But some are so worried about their health they won’t go to see a doctor because they don’t want to risk hearing that they are really sick.”

There are effective psychological and medicinal treatments available for health anxiety, according to Furer, who is presently evaluating a behavioral treatment program for health anxiety that involves coping with fear of illness and death, and increasing life satisfaction.

“If a person feels better about his or her own life, then fear of contracting disease will be lessened,” she noted. “And while concerns about SARS in China or Toronto are understandable, worrying to the point where it interferes with your work or family life may be a sign of health anxiety.”

© 2003 Health Resources Publishing