The effects of safety behaviors on health anxiety: An experimental investigation
The present study examined the extent to which safety behaviors exacerbate symptoms of hypochondriasis (severe health anxiety). Participants were randomized into a safety behavior (n= 30) or control condition (n= 30). After a baseline period, participants in the safety behavior condition spent one week actively engaging in a clinically representative array of health-related safety behaviors on a daily basis, followed by a second week-long baseline period. Participants in the control condition monitored their normal use of safety behaviors. Compared to control participants, those in the safety behavior condition reported significantly greater increases in health anxiety, hypochondriacal beliefs, contamination fear, and avoidant responses to health-related behavioral tasks after the safety behavior manipulation. In contrast, general anxiety symptoms did not significantly differ between the two groups as a function of the manipulation. Mediational analyses were consistent with the hypothesis that changes in the frequency of health-related thoughts mediated the effects of the experimental manipulation on health anxiety. These findings suggest that safety behaviors are associated with increases in health anxiety, perhaps by fostering catastrophic thoughts about health. The implications of these findings for the conceptualization of hypochondriasis as an anxiety disorder are discussed.