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Without Prompt Treatment, Health Anxiety at 11 and 16 Could Last Into Adulthood

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Key Takeaways

  • Health anxiety often refers to excessive worry about severe illness even when there is no cause for concern.
  • By measuring health anxiety from age 11 to 16 years, this study highlights the need to address the issue in childhood and adolescence to prevent further challenges in adulthood.
  • While persistent health anxiety was rare, it was more common in girls and children who experienced somatic illness, and it resulted in increased healthcare costs.

This pandemic has meant a great deal more uncertainty for most people, which will likely have far-reaching consequences as time progresses. A recently published study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry is particularly relevant as it found that untreated health anxiety in children and adolescents may contribute to challenges in adulthood.

Prior to this study, no research had explored how health anxiety may continue from childhood to adolescence, which is especially relevant as individuals navigate worry regarding physical and mental health with COVID-19. While this study was conducted prior to the pandemic in Denmark, its insights may apply to many challenges Americans face with health anxiety in the U.S.

Understanding the Research

For this study, health anxiety was assessed among 1,278 children and adolescents at the ages of 11 and 16 in a general population‐based birth cohort in Denmark. The large sample size and longitudinal design are strengths of this research. The data on healthcare costs through public services limited bias in terms of the socioeconomic factors of participants.

Although only 1.3% of youth reported persistent challenges with health anxiety, they found it debilitating. And it resulted in the use of resources with their healthcare providers at rates that were two to three times the average.

Given how many Americans find it difficult to afford healthcare, such persistent severe health anxiety may feel particularly overwhelming in terms of costs for adults if left untreated in childhood and adolescence.

In terms of limitations, the 5‐year period between the two data points means that it cannot be considered continuous. Assessments between the ages of 11 and 16 might have provided further insights into these trajectories whereby severe persistent health anxiety was developed, as would have reports of health anxiety from the parents of the participants and a baseline measure of their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) at age 11.

How Health Anxiety Can Develop

Clinical psychologist Diante Fuchs says, "Anxiety is a tricky state. It is supposed to be a helpful human response designed to keep us safe by alerting us to danger. Our anxiety spikes in relation to situations we need to pay attention to in order to promote our survival."

Despite how anxiety is meant to keep folx safe, it can be triggered in response to a traumatic event, such as the illness of a loved one, which can have long-term impacts on the perception of illness for the individual.

Dr. Diante Fuchs

What we often see is that an event in childhood or adolescence creates a sense of threat, which starts the process of anxiety: The brain telling us to pay attention.

— Dr. Diante Fuchs

While health anxiety may persist into adulthood, Alton Bozeman, PsyD, cautions, "The researchers’ findings did not support chronic health anxiety after controlling for other variables (17 out of 2000 kids). Per the original study, gender and somatic illness were the primary predictors. Fear of illness did not persist in the children and they did not utilize health care resources." 

With these insights in mind, it is important to take the health concerns of marginalized genders seriously, as there is a long history of reports of women's pain being dismissed by healthcare providers with misogyny, just as transphobia often impacts the experiences of gender diverse folx.

Alton Bozeman, PsyD

The children with actual complaints of illness were more likely to continue to have complaints of illness and use a lot of unnecessary resources over the years. The takeaway would be for parents and pediatricians to take somatic complaints (actual claiming of symptoms) of children seriously as they are likely to become chronic and overly utilize medical resources.

— Alton Bozeman, PsyD

In addition to the exacerbated healthcare costs associated with persistent, severe, untreated health anxiety, navigating such debilitating worry may make it difficult for folx to function well in their daily lives.

What This Means For You

Health anxiety can have negative long-term impacts when left untreated, so experts recommend accessing mental health support if children and adolescents are expressing a great deal of concern over their health. While parents may mean well by seeking additional medical attention and health screening, this can feed into worry, which has the potential to become a more chronic issue in adulthood.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Rimvall MK, Jeppesen P, Skovgaard AM, Verhulst F, Olsen EM, Rask CU. Continuity of health anxiety from childhood to adolescence and associated healthcare costs: a prospective population‐based cohort studyJ Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2021;62(4):441-448. doi:10.1111/jcpp.13286