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Are You a "Worried Well" Person?

January 2010

Many people are fearful that they have HIV, even though they are either at very low risk of infection, or have tested negative for HIV. The common term informally used to describe people in this situation is "worried well." This term generally refers to people who are worried (or convinced) that they have a particular disease, even though they are physically well (in other words, they do not actually have the disease). "Worried well" is not a formal psychiatric term, so you may not find this expression in any psychology textbook. But this term is in common use among many health professionals and among the general population.

Among "worried well" people who are scared of having HIV/AIDS, the actual problem is usually psychological, rather than medical. Psychological problems commonly associated with "worried well" people include:

  • Clinical depression
  • Anxiety disorders (severe anxiety)
  • Severe guilt
  • Phobias (Having an irrational fear)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Other psychological disorders

These psychological problems can only be diagnosed by a qualified mental health counselor, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

In regard to HIV/AIDS, how do you know if you are a "worried well" person? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you scared of having HIV/AIDS, even when you have been told that you are at low risk (or no risk) of getting the infection? Are you having a difficult time accepting the fact that you are at low risk or no risk?

  2. Are you scared of having HIV, even though you have tested negative on an antibody test three months and even after six months? Are you having a difficult time accepting the fact that you are HIV negative? Have you taken HIV tests over and over and over? Have you taken PCR tests, viral load tests, CD4 counts, antigen tests, HIV-2 tests, etc., even though you have been told that you do not clinically need to take these tests? Are you fearful of having the Group "O" strain of HIV (or other rare and unusual strains)? Are you insisting to your doctor that you take these tests, even though your doctor tells you that you do not need to take them? Have you spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on HIV tests?

  3. Are your fears of having HIV interfering with your day-to-day life, especially on an ongoing basis? Has your fear of HIV began to interfere with your relationships, your job, your home life, your school work, etc.?

  4. Have you called HIV/AIDS hotlines numerous times asking the same question(s)?

  5. Have you spent numerous hours on the Internet reading about HIV/AIDS because you think you may be infected (despite being told that you are not infected, or that you are at low risk)?

  6. When it comes to HIV/AIDS-related issues, have you thought of yourself as being paranoid or obsessed?

  7. Are you convinced that every symptom you are having is due to HIV/AIDS, despite being told that you are at low risk for HIV, or despite lab tests showing that you are not infected with HIV?

  8. Has an HIV/AIDS hotline, a doctor or another medical professional, suggested that you seek mental health counseling?

  9. Has your doctor prescribed you with an antidepressant medication because of your fears relating to HIV/AIDS?

If you have answered yes to some of these questions, you may want to consider talking to a mental health counselor to identify the true cause of your fears. In addition, if your doctor has prescribed an antidepressant medication for you, it is very important that you go into counseling in addition to taking your medications. Antidepressants and similar drugs are not "happy pills." They must be used along with mental health counseling in order to be helpful.

Counseling cannot be done over the telephone or over the computer. Counseling can only be done in person. Solving these types of problems usually takes multiple counseling sessions (not just one or two).

To find a counselor in your area, look in the yellow pages of your phone book under "Mental Health" or a similar heading. You may also want to contact your local mental health center, or, if you prefer, a religious figure (such as a priest, minister or rabbi) with counseling experience. Often, a general counselor is all you need. However, if your case is very severe, you may be referred to a psychiatrist (a physician who specializes in psychiatric disorders).

In summary, if your fear of having HIV/AIDS is interfering with your day-to-day life on an ongoing basis, then I strongly suggest you consider talking to a mental health counselor regarding your fears. Remember, mental health is just as important as physical health!

Do you want more information on HIV/AIDS, STDs or safer sex? Contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Healthline, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-232-4636. Or visit The Body's Safe Sex and Prevention Forum.

Until next time . . . Work hard, play hard, play safe, stay sober!

This article was provided by Rick Sowadsky, M.S.P.H..
See Also
Guide to Conquering the Fear, Shame and Anxiety of HIV
Trauma: Frozen Moments, Frozen Lives
More on Coping With Stress and Anxiety