Mindfulness-Based Therapy May Reduce Health Anxiety

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is different from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in that it focuses on learning how to accept emotions rather than transform them. Individuals with health anxiety, also known as hypochondriasis, are often treated with CBT. Because CBT has been an effective therapeutic protocol for anxiety in general, it has been the most common avenue of treatment for people who are experiencing significant fear and worry about their health. Unfortunately, CBT does not always prove effective for individuals with health anxiety. This could be due to the fact that these people worry about changing the content of their thoughts or still harbor fear about physical symptoms they experience. Unlike CBT, MBCT focuses on somatic and bodily experiences. Because many people with hypochondriasis feel their symptoms in their physical body, it would be expected that MBCT would not work as well as more traditional cognitive therapies. To test this hypothesis, Freda McManus of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the UK recently led a study comparing traditional unrestricted services (US) and MBCT in a sample of 74 individuals with health anxiety.

McManus evaluated the participants prior to the treatment, at the end of the 8-week intervention, and again 1 year later. Many of the participants had other psychological issues in addition to their health anxiety, and McManus found that both the US and the MBCT had the same effect on these other conditions. Specifically, levels of depression and generalized anxiety were similar for both groups of participants at the end of the intervention. However, the levels of health anxiety were significantly reduced in the MBCT group at the end of the treatment period and even further reduced over time. In fact, more than half of the MBCT group were no longer in the clinical range upon completion of MBCT, and this rose to more than 63% 1 year later. The US group only saw 20% fall below clinical range following treatment and just over 23% at 1-year follow-up. McManus believes that acceptance of emotions, rather than changing emotional content, allows individuals with health anxiety to better cope with the fears and worries associated with their somatic and cognitive symptoms. She added, “This suggests that the MBCT intervention, adapted to focus on symptoms of health anxiety, added significant advantage to US in terms of reducing symptoms of health anxiety.”

McManus, F., Surawy, C., Muse, K., Vazquez-Montes, M., Williams, J. M. G. (2012). A randomized clinical trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy versus unrestricted services for health anxiety (hypochondriasis). Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028782

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • millie


    July 13th, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    How am I supposed to accept those emotions and feelings that keep me so anxiety ridden? I want them to go away and not have to embrace them.

  • Lena Lollis

    Lena Lollis

    July 13th, 2012 at 3:16 PM

    If I thought that this is something that I wished to pursue then how would I go about finding a therapist that I thought could help me through these steps effectively?

  • Tanner


    July 14th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    I don’t get the whole hypochondriac thing.
    Who wants to go thru life thinking that they are sick all the time?
    Aren’t there better things that life has to offer than different illnesses that you can try on for the day?

  • Heather


    August 2nd, 2017 at 9:28 AM

    Hey @Tanner , I understand how it might be difficult to get why people think this way, but please know it’s not a choice. It’s not like we wake up in the morning and think “I’m going to worry about Cancer today! yeah that sounds fun!” It’s more like “I really want to live my life like ‘normal people and not worry’ but I noticed this thing about my body and I’m really worried about it and it’s ruining my life.”
    It sucks even more when we don’t feel supported. For example “I want to go to the doctor for this so I can live my life, but I’m afraid they’ll just tell me it’s nothing (and think I’m crazy) and send me on my way, OR they’ll find something and I don’t know what I’d do if that happened.”
    While I understand that it’s hard to understand unless you’re going through it, reminding people that they aren’t living life kinda sucks. We’re VERY aware we’re not living life. We want nothing more than to have that ability…but we’re stuck on a thought. Often knowing we’re not living life because of our issues makes us EVEN MORE depressed and our hole just gets deeper.
    If you don’t have this issue please know you are probably envied by everyone who does…I mean I wish I could just turn it off and live life…really… I acknowledge I’ve missed a lot of wonderful moments in my life because of this, but it’s taken years of monk like discipline to learn how to weigh my thoughts, and control my reactions to them and I still need help from time to time. I wish I didn’t have this problem, but I do. I mean we could say the same thing about any mental issue.. “Why don’t you just stop eating you fat lard, you’re going to die of a heart attack!”, “Why don’t you just stop throwing up you bulimic, don’t you see it’s ruining your life?” or “Stop washing your hands so much, and just live your life”, but that kind of comment doesn’t really help that person. It just reminds them that they’re missing out on life, and that they’re not the “normal” they wish to be so badly.
    Hopefully my response has helped you understand this a little bit better and please if you know someone who has this issue be kind to them. They know they’re missing out…it’s like being at a birthday and you have to sit in the corner when everyone else is having fun. It sucks. :)

  • Marie


    May 14th, 2018 at 11:34 PM

    Excellently explained.

  • diana


    July 14th, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    @millie:i think what they mean here by acceptance is acceptance of the fact that those feelings have arisen and rather than to try to push them away everytime they come to your mind you could accept their existence and try to cope with them.

    it is very encouraging to see the success figures com[pares to the old technique.Hooray!



    July 15th, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    @Tanner:People do not do that on purpose.Its a disorder n they are quite helpless about it.if anything,v should try n encourage newer methods for helping people with this disorder so that they r spared of the vicious feeling of being unhealthy.

  • millie


    July 15th, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    I have read a little more about this since my first post. I think that this could be for me because from what I understand it is an encouragement to accept myself for who I am and not try to change the way I feel, just to help me gain some acceptance and a little control over those feelings. I can learn to love them as a part of me but not let them dominate my life in such a way that I can’t function because of them.

  • Rochelle


    July 17th, 2012 at 8:17 AM

    The key is to embrace, through all its discomfort, the anxiety we feel. Avoiding, hiding, covering it up or ignoring only increases how big anxiety can be. MBCT is a wonderful technique for people who can ‘get inside’ their bodies and for those who might feel they can’t, CBT could be the way to go. I prefer to offer clients an option so they can choose which method works best for them.

  • Ce Eshelman, LMFT

    Ce Eshelman, LMFT

    July 24th, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    I use attachment-based approaches in all my work and have found that neurofeedback cuts straight to the heart of dysregulation. Once that happens, attachment psychotherapy is much more successful in healing broken bonds and emotional upsets in close, intimate relationships.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.