What Is Nosophobia

  • Tina Wing Yiu So Bachelor of Social Sciences in Psychology – BSScH in Psychology, Hong Kong Metropolitan University
  • Dr Maria Weissenbruch Doctor (Ph.D.), Cell and Developmental Biology, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany

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Introduction 

Nosophobia (or Nosemaphobia) or “fear of diseases” is a specific term used to describe the fear or phobia of developing a particular illness/disease. It is a form of anxiety characterised by excessive concern upon contracting a specific illness that is usually life-threatening. One may experience heightened distress, engage in avoidance behaviours, and seek constant reassurance regarding their health status. 

In regard to excessive concentration and worries about one’s health status, plus the induction of various adverse effects, nosophobia would impact an individual’s emotional well-being and quality of life significantly. Therefore, a thorough understanding is crucial to healthcare professionals and the general public for empathy promotion, early intervention, and appropriate support among the nosophobia population.to create a safe and supportive environment and reduce stigma while facilitating effective communication to improve mental well-being and quality of life among them.1 

Definition and origins 

Nosophobia (or nosemaphobia) is a term derived from Greek, where ‘nosos’ means diseases, while ‘phobos’ means fear. Classified in the DSM-5 as a specific anxiety and phobia subtype, it altogether refers to an excessive and irrational fear of getting a specific, serious disease, which is usually chronic, life-changing, or life-threatening, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS .2,3  

While commonly seen by medical students and researchers, who would fear contracting the diseases they studied. It is also called “medical students’ disease” sometimes due to the student’s beliefs of contracting a certain disease upon studies.1,2 

Other similar terms include pathophobia, hypochondria, and the relatively new cyberchondria.   

Prevalence 

While it is hard to know the exact population with nosophobia. However, along with the increasingly easier access to medical information and heightened health awareness, people with nosophobia might have increased due to the worldwide outbreak and worrisome to COVID-19.1  

Causes and risk factors 

Although nosophobia could affect all genders and age groups, older individuals may be more susceptible to it because of their fear of mortality.1 

More causes and risk factors are as follows: 

Traumatic experiences 

  • Related to illness
    • Seriously ill during my childhood
    • Family history of inheritable/severe illness 
    • Caring for/ witnessing someone close with a life-threatening disease 
    • Loss of a loved one due to incurable illness
  • Childhood abuse or neglect 
  • Rape or other physical or emotional abuse   

These experiences could leave a lasting impact to individuals, leading to an irrational fear of falling victim to similar conditions.1,2

Excessive exposure to medical information

While worst-case scenarios and rare diseases are often highlighted by the abundant health-related content through the internet or media. Anxieties and irrational fears towards various diseases can be fuelled and amplified, where information overload can lead to hypervigilance and constant worry about one’s health. 

According to DSM-5, nosophobia is known to be very much related to hypochondriasis, which is now called Illness Anxiety Disorder (IAD)2

Personality traits 

  • High levels of anxiety, neuroticism, self-critical, introverted, and narcissistic 
  • Take life events seriously 
  • Catastrophic thinking tendency
  • Low tolerance threshold4 

Others 

  • Extreme stress
  • Personal or family history with:
  • Gene mutations that increase the risk of anxiety, phobia, or mental health conditions1

Symptoms and effects 

While people with nosophobia may request frequent medical visits and tests, they may develop a fear of doctors and medical tests (iatrophobia) due to the fear of being diagnosed with an illness. They might also feel the doctors are not taking their symptoms and concerns seriously.1  

Below are some other signs of nosophobia: 

Psychological symptoms

Psychologically, nosophobia encompasses a range of symptoms as follows

  • Excessive worry: Persistent and irrational preoccupying thoughts on contracting a specific illness despite evidence  
  • Hypervigilance: Constant monitoring of bodily sensations for perceived symptoms and changes while exaggerated interpretation of minor symptoms as evidence of serious illness. 
  • Catastrophic Thinking: Fearing the worst-case scenarios about health issues, leading to heightened anxiety and distress. 

Physical symptoms

Physically, nosophobia may manifest as a wide range of symptoms, such as palpitations, sweating, hyperventilation, and gastrointestinal distress due to heightened anxiety levels. These symptoms may even occur in the absence of acute illness, as the body is under a fight-flight response, reacting to the perceived threat of a specific illness. Furthermore, muscle tension, headaches, fatigue, tremors, nausea and insomnia can also be manifested due to the chronic stress and anxiety associated with nosophobia.1,2  

Behavioural manifestations 

Behavioural indication of nosophobia often induces avoidance behaviours, compulsive checking, and reassurance seeking. Not only the avoidance of certain places or situations perceived as risky for contracting the feared illness (for example, avoiding gatherings to protect oneself from COVID-19), would lead individuals to social withdrawal and isolation. Compulsive behaviours of repeatedly examining physical signs of illness and online research may also impair normal functioning for schooling and work. Furthermore, individuals with nosophobia may also overshare their symptoms to seek reassurance from health providers, family, and friends obsessively for validation or relief. This continual reassurance-seeking could potentially strain interpersonal relationships while exacerbating the cycle of anxiety, fear, and uneasiness to normal bodily functions.1  

Impact on daily life and well-being

Nosophobia, presented to be a complex interplay of psychological, physical, and behavioural manifestations, could severely impair an individual’s daily life and normal functioning. The hypervigilance, led by persistent fear of illness, could, in turn, intensify the vicious cycle of physical symptoms and compulsive behaviours, driving to social isolation and exacerbating existing psychological vulnerabilities. Hence, furthering deviation and maladaptive behaviours diminish overall well-being and quality of life. 

Diagnosis and assessment 

Nosophobia is a persistent fear of having/developing a specific disease, there is no specific test in its confirmation. Where a mental health professional will only diagnose nosophobia if symptoms last for six months or longer. Therefore, ruling out a particular disease with a thorough evaluation before reaching a nosophobia diagnosis is necessary.1 Here is an overview of the assessment process: 

Assessment ProcedureDescription
Clinical InterviewIn-depth discussion between the clinician and the patient for information gathering, about their fears, thoughts, and experiences related to a particular illness. The duration, intensity of the fear, and the functional limitation caused will also be explored. 
Self-Report QuestionnairesUtilisation of standardised questionnaires such as the Health Anxiety Inventory (HAI), Whiteley Index (WI), and the Illness Attitude Scale (IAS),  to assess the severity of nosophobic symptoms, and their impact on one’s own daily life.  These could provide valuable insight, helpful for measuring the nature and extent of the phobia.  
Observation and Behavioral AssessmentObservation of the patient's behaviour and reaction during the interview and examination to identify signs of anxiety, avoidance behaviours, or other relevant behavioural patterns related to the specific health concern, indicating nosophobia. 
Physical ExaminationComprehensive physical examination is performed by a healthcare provider to assess the patient's overall health status and identify any potential physical conditions. The examination aims to address the patient's concerns and provide reassurance regarding their health.

Differential diagnosis and ruling out of conditions1

ConditionDifferential DiagnosisRuling Out Procedures
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)Excessive worry about various aspects of life, not limited to illnessPsychiatric evaluation, DSM-5 criteria assessment
Illness anxiety disorder(Hypochondria)Preoccupation with being sick from many diseases despite medical reassurance, and possibly absence of physical symptoms Detailed medical history evaluation, physical examination, laboratory tests, imaging studies, psychiatric assessment, and DSM-5 criteria evaluation
Panic DisorderRecurrent panic attacks with sudden onset of intense fear or discomfortPanic attack assessment, psychiatric evaluation
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)Obsessions about contamination or illness, accompanied by compulsive behavioursOCD assessment, psychiatric evaluation
Somatic disorderMultiple physical complaints without medical explanationThorough medical evaluation, excluding organic causes
Specific PhobiaIntense fear or anxiety about a specific object or situationAssessment of specific fears, exposure therapy

Treatment and management 

Once diagnosed, a psychologist or psychiatrist can help you to cope with your fear of a particular disease through the following:  

Psychotherapy and counselling

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has been recognized as a primary treatment approach to nosophobia. While focusing on identifying and challenging irrational thoughts and beliefs related to the specific illness. Throughout cognitive restructuring, patients could learn to reframe and replace their catastrophic thinking patterns with more balanced and realistic perspectives. Coping skills will also be taught during sessions for appropriate anxiety and uncertainty management towards health concerns.1,5 

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is the central behavioural strategy among CBT for anxiety disorders. The exposure therapeutic technique involves gradually exposing individuals to their feared situation or stimuli related to particular illnesses. Conducted in a controlled and supportive environment with a gradual manner according to the patient’s adaptability, one can learn to manage their anxiety while realising their disproportionated fears to actual risks. Hence, this facilitates the building of resilience and promotes the reduction of avoidance behaviours to specific illnesses simultaneously.1,5

Mindfulness-based relaxations

By employing mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, individuals with nosophobia can manage their anxiety better. Alongside the focus on bodily sensations of breaths. Awareness of the present moment can also be cultivated, helping to reduce excessive worry while promoting emotional regulation and, thus, overall well-being. 

Medications and pharmacological interventions

In some cases, antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) would be prescribed to individuals with nosophobia in order to alleviate your anxiety symptoms and improve overall functioning. 

Please consult a medical professional to discuss the risks, benefits and side effects upon your appropriateness and unique circumstances prior to any medication consumption.1 

Complementary and alternative therapies

Some may also find complementary and alternative therapies beneficial. While hypnotherapy, yoga, acupuncture and herbal supplements do not directly target nosophobia, they can be effective in stress reduction, enhance coping mechanisms, and improve overall well-being .1,6,7,8  

However, due to the limited scientific evidence for their efficacy, one should consult qualified practitioners carefully prior to treatment.  

Complications 

constantly worrying about your health can cause you unnecessary stress, which can adversely affect your physical and mental well-being. 

Nosophobia could also put you at risk of:

  • Financial struggles due to unemployment and excessive medical bills 
  • Unnecessary medical tests and their possible complications
  • Social isolation and withdrawal 
  • Decreased treatment adherence due to irrational fear 
  • Potential mental health comorbidities

Prevention 

  • Education: Enrich yourself with accurate information about diseases, their prevalence and symptoms can help to dispel misconceptions and irrational fears.
  • Early intervention: Anxiety disorders, including nosophobia, are often resulted from untreated or unmanaged anxiety. Identifying and addressing them at early stages can reduce the likelihood of exacerbating a specific phobia.
  • Building resilience: Resilience can help to cope with your health-related stressors and uncertainties. It also facilitates the building of healthy coping mechanisms, such as problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, stress management, and fostering a positive mindset.  
  • Encourage self-care:  Promoting a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise, a blanched diet, sufficient sleep, and social support can contribute to overall well-being, while maintaining a sense of control over health, to reduce the likelihood of excessive anxiety. 
  • Limiting exposure to media: Excessive exposure to fear-induced media coverage of diseases and illnesses can contribute to heightened anxiety and fear. Seek information from reliable sources while limiting exposure to excessive media coverage can help to prevent the onset of nosophobia,   

Summary

Nosophobia is an excessive and irrational fear of contracting a specific disease or illness. Characterised by intense anxiety or fear of being ill. It is often accompanied by avoidance behaviours and compulsive checking of physical symptoms. Individuals may also experience significant distress that impairs their normal daily functioning. Fortunately, treatment approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, mindfulness techniques, and medications are available. Together with the implementation of self-care practices, early identifications and interventions are crucial for nomophobia management and exacerbation prevention to optimise an individual's normal functioning and overall well-being.   

FAQs

What are the other phobias associated with nosophobia?

 While it is not uncommon to have several phobias of shared connection. A person with nosophobia may also develop the following: 

  • Carcinophobia (fear of getting cancer).
  • Cardiophobia (fear of heart attacks).
  • Dermatophobia (fear of skin diseases).
  • Hemophobia (fear of blood).
  • Pharmacophobia (fear of medication).
  • Thanatophobia (fear of death).
  • Trypanophobia (fear of needles).

Will anxiety go away eventually?

While anxiety may reoccur depending on your life circumstances, it usually goes away once the triggering event is over. However, an anxiety disorder can become a long-term condition. 

Do phobias get worse with age? 

As we produce much less adrenaline as we age, our physiological phobic reactions (such as racing hearts and dizziness would reduce. Meaning that the intense fear we may have during teenage is no longer as trouble.   

How do you fight a phobia?

10 ways to fight your fears

  • Take time out 
  • Breathe through panic
  • Face your fears 
  • Imagine the worst 
  • Look at the evidence
  • Don’t try to be perfect 
  • Visualise a happy place 
  • Talk about it 
  • Go back to basics 
  • Reward yourself 

References 

  1. Nosophobia (Fear of Disease): Causes, Symptoms & Treatment [Internet]. Cleveland Clinic. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22523-nosophobia-fear-of-disease 
  2. Dr.Ilakkiya.L AV &. Nosophobia and Self-Efficacy for Exercise among Students of Science during Pandemic. Journal of Positive School Psychology [Internet]. 2022 Jun 3 [cited 2024 Feb 23];6(2):6195–206. Available from: https://journalppw.com/index.php/jpsp/article/view/6208 
  3. Luber M. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy Scripted Protocols and Summary sheets. Treating trauma- and stressor-related Conditions. New York, Ny: Springer Publishing Company, Llc; 2016.
  4. Heiat M, Heiat F, Halaji M, Ranjbar R, Tavangar Marvasti Z, Yaali-Jahromi E, et al. Phobia and Fear of COVID-19: origins, Complications and management, a Narrative Review. Ann Ig [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2024 Feb 23];33(4):360–70. Available from: http://raseshco.ir/uploads/976eca79354648e2a30b36c75b4a1372.pdf 
  5. Curtiss JE, Levine DS, Ander I, Baker AW. Cognitive-behavioural Treatments for Anxiety and stress-related Disorders. The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry [Internet]. 2021 Jun 17;19(2):184–9. Available from: https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.focus.20200045 
  6. Varambally S, Philip M, Gangadhar B, Umadevi P, Ramachandra S. Effect of Yoga Therapy on Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms and quality-of-life among Caregivers of in-patients with Neurological Disorders at a Tertiary Care Center in India: a Randomized Controlled Trial. Indian Journal of Psychiatry [Internet]. 2013 [cited 2024 Feb 21];55(7):385. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768217/
  7. Yang X, Yang N, Huang F, Ren S, Li Z. Effectiveness of Acupuncture on Anxiety disorder: a Systematic Review and meta-analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials. Annals of General Psychiatry [Internet]. 2021 Jan 30 [cited 2024 Feb 22];20(1). Available from: https://annals-general-psychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12991-021-00327-5 
  8. Lakhan SE, Vieira KF. Nutritional and Herbal Supplements for Anxiety and anxiety-related disorders: Systematic Review. Nutrition Journal [Internet]. 2010 Oct 7 [cited 2024 Feb 22];9(1). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2959081/ 

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Tina Wing Yiu So

Bachelor of Social Sciences in Psychology – BSScH in Psychology, Hong Kong Metropolitan University

Having graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences in Psychology, Tina has developed a solid academic foundation in the understanding of human mind and behaviour. Complemented by her personal experiences in face of mobility challenges since a very young age, Tina is fascinated by positive psychology, counseling, neuroscience, and health and wellness, which she is continuously expanding her knowledge on the relevant fields.

Whilst preparing herself for her future career, with deep curiosity and strong belief in the holistic approach to well-being. Tina aims to empower individuals through her writings by sharing her knowledge, to provide insightful and evidence-based content in promoting mental and physical health.

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