More so than the fear of health care, some people are consumed by fear for their health. Some may become so frightened of contracting a disease that they are unable to leave their home, says clinical psychologist Steven Taylor, PhD, co-author with psychologist Gordon Asmundson, PhD, of "Treating Health Anxiety: A Cognitive-Behavioral Approach" (Guilford Press, 2004).
Often, disease phobias go hand-in-hand with obsessive-compulsive disorder--in which patients might wash their hands continuously to avoid becoming "contaminated" (see sidebar on Howard Hughes).
Encouragingly, as with other phobias, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help patients overcome such aversions, notes Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. For example, he delves into clients' beliefs about diseases, since some people may hold misperceptions about how diseases are contracted.
A second component of treatment may incorporate behavioral therapy by exposing clients gradually to the fearful situation to help desensitize them to their fears. Taylor might, for example, have a patient sit in a hospital's waiting room.
When treating someone with a disease phobia, however, Taylor says it's important to take into account the person's medical situation.
"They may have a disease phobia but actually can be medically ill, such as with HIV and hepatitis, where their immune system might be severely compromised," he says. In that case, it might not be healthy to expose them to other sick people, so treatment may need to rely more on listening to the patient's concerns.
Regardless, Taylor says it's important to help clients understand why they have a phobia and how it interferes in their life. "It's important to get some insight into the problems and prepare goals to reduce those fears," he says. Likewise, "if you fall off a bike, you might be afraid to get back on it. So you work through all those fears."