Health anxiety in childhood and adolescence can become chronic

Symptoms of health anxiety are common during childhood and adolescence – and if the children don’t get the right help, the anxiety can become a permanent problem with serious personal and socioeconomic consequences. This is evident from a new research result from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen.

Ida is 11 years old. Six months ago her grandmother died of cancer after a long illness and since then Ida has become more and more anxious that she too will get cancer and die. The fear can be triggered when she passes by a hospital or sees people who look sick. She needs reassurance from her parents many times a day and has also begun to involve the adults in school. Her parents have taken Ida to the doctor several times in the hope that this will help, but Ida’s concerns and anxiety start again shortly after the doctor’s appointment.

Ida’s story is not uncommon. A new study shows that symptoms such as excessive concern about having a serious illness, often referred to as health anxiety, are common in childhood and adolescence. The study was conducted by researchers from Aarhus University and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Aarhus University Hospital, in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and the Research Unit – Center for Mental Health Care for Children and Adolescents, the Capital Region of Denmark.

“Most people experience periods of worry about having a serious physical illness. If the anxiety becomes excessive and persistent, they can develop into actual health anxiety or hypochondria. There is a great need for more attention to health anxiety in children. and adolescents, including developing more specialized psychological treatments, which already exist for adults with health anxiety, ”explains Clinical Professor and Medical Doctor Charlotte Rask, the senior researcher behind the study.

Fear can hold the youth in their grip

Nearly 1,300 children from the Danish Copenhagen Child Cohort 2000 screening program were examined for health anxiety at the age of 11 and 16. The majority of children with many health anxiety symptoms at age 11 showed diminishing symptoms, but the researchers found a worrying pattern in a small number of children. group of approximately 1.3 percent of adolescents with persistent and significant health anxiety problems up to age 16.

In addition to many health anxiety symptoms, this group also used two to three times as many resources from general practitioners and medical specialists, compared to the youth who had only a few health anxiety symptoms. This finding can be troubling, as this type of illness and contact behavior can actually perpetuate the health anxiety of young people, insofar as the behavior can only briefly alleviate the health concerns they have, but does not solve the underlying problems with anxiety, ” says Martin Rimvall. physician and the lead author behind the study.

Charlotte Rask explains:

“There is a very close relationship between anxiety, heightened attention to the body and how symptoms are experienced. However, it is rarely the symptoms themselves, but the health problems that follow, which are the primary burden for people with health anxiety. Often undetected,” because fluctuations in various symptoms and the fear of overlooking a serious illness can keep the person in an inappropriate pattern of repeated contact with their GP and hospital system examinations, ”says Charlotte Rask.

Parents play a special role

General practitioners and physicians can thus subconsciously perpetuate the health anxiety, as the patient can easily think that he / she would not be referred to further medical examinations if nothing was wrong.

“Parents play a special role in the case of children and adolescents, either by helping to stop excessive GP visits or by helping to support them,” she says.

The study, just published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, also shows that children with recognized physical illness at age 11 have a particularly increased risk of developing health anxiety symptoms later in adolescence.

“Raising health professionals’ awareness of the psychological consequences of physical illness in children and young people can therefore provide us with important prevention potential,” says Charlotte Rask.

Anxiety during the pandemic

Other population studies have shown that health anxiety has become an increasing problem in the general population over the past decade – and this can be attributed to increased media coverage of serious illnesses and easily accessible online information, the researchers say. In line with these findings, there are now also studies suggesting that health anxiety is an increasing problem during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“ Since our study shows that health anxiety can already be a major problem in children and adolescents, even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are now even more reasons to focus on youth mental health and, in particular, health anxiety. “says Martin Rimvall.

Copenhagen Child Cohort 2000:

Copenhagen Child Cohort 2000 is a research project that examines the development of children from birth to adolescence. The goal is to gain knowledge that can be used to prevent some of the most common health problems in children and adolescents.

Health anxiety or illness anxiety:

Health anxiety or illness anxiety is a condition in which a person is primarily plagued by the fear of having or contracting a serious illness. Often it is the thought of cancer, heart disease, or a neurological condition that causes this fear. But it can also be other diseases. Just as some people suffer from claustrophobia, others can suffer from anxiety. The fear of illness often revolves around experiencing new symptoms and bodily sensations.

For someone with health anxiety, the thoughts of an illness and the anxiety itself are the problem. It is usually not the physical symptoms themselves that are so troubling.

Background for the results

The survey is a population survey of 1,278 children born in the year 2000 in the former Copenhagen district.

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The study from Aarhus University and the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Aarhus University Hospital, was conducted in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen and the research unit – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Center, the Capital Region of Denmark.

It is funded by the Trygfonden, the Lundbeck Foundation, the Øster Jørgensen & Rønhild Andersen Foundation, and the Capital Region of Denmark’s Psychiatry Research Pool.

The scientific article can be read in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Contact

Charlotte Rask

Aarhus University, Department of Clinical Medicine and

Aarhus University Hospital, Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychiatry

Email address: charrask@rm.dk

Mobile: (+45) 2162 2492

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