WE all know someone who worries far too much about their health. You know the type: they think they’re dying when they have a sprained ankle and worry that a tummy ache is a parasitic worm. 

Health anxiety – better known as ‘hypochondria’ – blows up frivolous aches and normal bodily functions into apocalyptic omens. A hypochondriac might be in the prime of their life and may well run marathons every weekend, but their mind is preoccupied with fears that a major medical event is lurking around the next bend.
For people with health anxiety, life can seem like the 1975 Jaws movie poster. Hypochondriacs fear death and disability from an impending medical monster – and are desperate not to be an unwitting victim like the naïve naked swimmer.
Hypochondria isn’t new and is surprisingly common. The word ‘hypochondria’ means ‘the area underneath the ribs’ because doctors used to think was a problem in the organs rather than the mind. 
In the 1600s, some doctors said that half of all their patients suffered an unfounded belief in a serious illness. Today UK researchers think that up to a fifth of general practice and clinic appointments are due to excessive worry about health.
The internet has fuelled an increase in health anxiety and is the terrifying playground for hypochondriac. Research shows that we Google our symptoms even before we tell our partner, and one in four Brits go so far as to diagnose themselves from their internet rather than see a doctor. ‘Cyberchondria’ is particularly dangerous because of the countless poor quality, scaremongering websites. Most people don’t check the quality of the websites they read: 
Recent research by scientists in Boston, USA, found that online symptom-checkers only get the diagnosis correct a third of the time.
But we shouldn’t just roll our eyes when a friend tells us they’re worried about their headache for the umpteenth time, despite having been repeatedly given the all-clear by doctor. Heath anxiety means continually seeking information and reassurance about symptoms, which sets up a vicious cycle of worry. 
Hypochondriacs want complete assurance and certainty about their health – something that is impossible. Nevertheless, if you dismiss a health worrier’s concerns out of hand then you can fuel their fears that a deadly predator lurking in their loins. Constant checking of a body part and searching online takes a real emotional toll. Many people with hypochondria also have underlying depression, anxiety disorder, or other mental health issue.
If you suffer health anxiety, then know that repeated checking amplifies fretting. Be prepared to confront your fears, possibly with the help of an experienced counsellor. It is worthwhile avoiding empty reassurances. 
Instead, find out the facts and consider the odds: brain tumours affect very few people – just 0.002 per cent of us. (You wouldn’t know that from Google, where 25 per cent of all search results for “headache” point to brain tumour as a potential cause.) A little information is dangerous, so arm yourself with the real facts through patient leaflets from your surgery or trustworthy websites, such as NHS Choices. 
This Monday, Macmillan Cancer Support joined the fight against ‘fake news’ by appointing a ‘digital nurse’ employed to give trustworthy advice to anyone who shares their concerns on their site at community.macmillan.org.uk.
In the famous image, a naked woman is joyfully swimming in the sea and beneath her, a huge great white shark with huge white teeth is surging up to eat her. The scene is horrifying, not merely because she is about to become fish food, but because she is so blissfully unaware – had she known that there was a shark on the prowl then she would never have entered the waters!