Annual Research Review: Health anxiety in children and adolescents-developmental aspects and cross-generational influences

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2023 Nov 1. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13912. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Health anxiety involves excessive worries about one's health along with beliefs one has an illness or may contract a serious disease. Concerning evidence suggests that health anxiety is on the rise in society, possibly further fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent classification systems acknowledge that impairing health-related worries and beliefs can emerge in early childhood with significant levels of symptoms persisting throughout childhood, and possibly continuous with diagnostic considerations in adulthood. This narrative review summarizes recent research advances in health anxiety in children and adolescents, focusing on various developmental aspects of health anxiety and related concepts in youths. Findings suggest that health anxiety symptoms in young age groups are associated with impairment, distress, and increased healthcare use, as well as substantial comorbidity with mainly other emotional problems and disorders. Furthermore, longitudinal studies suggest that childhood health anxiety can persist across adolescence, perhaps with links to chronic courses in adulthood. The growing literature was further reviewed, thus extending our understanding of early risk factors, including the potential role of exposure to serious illness and transgenerational transmission of health anxiety. Learning more about developmental trajectories will be highly relevant to inform strategies for early detection and prevention. While modified cognitive behavioral therapies in adults are successful in treating health anxiety, specific interventions have not yet been tested in youths. Given substantial overlaps with other psychopathology, it could be important to develop and explore more transdiagnostic and scalable approaches that take advantage of common factors in psychotherapy, while also including a wider perspective on potential familiar maladaptive illness cognitions and behaviors.

Keywords: Adolescent; child; health anxiety; hypochondriasis; illness anxiety; illness phobia; illness worries; review; transgenerational transmission.

Publication types

  • Review