The purpose of this study is to determine if reality health television shows cultivate higher levels of anxiety among viewers; particularly those with heightened concerns about their wellness. This idea arose from observations in my clinical practice. I have witnessed many patients presenting with anxiety symptoms that are manifested by constant rumination and worry about having developed a specific health problem. People prone to health anxiety have the tendency to misinterpret health information received from reality television programming as evidence that they either have or are at risk for developing a serious illness. While there are ample research articles that review medical drama television shows, the literature is sparse when it comes to examining health talk television programming.
A qualitative research study was conducted using semi-structured interviews with 11 upper management employees employed by a large Canadian service company. The employees belong to a highly diversified social-cultural Canadian subgroup. Participants offer a cross range of marital status, ethical backgrounds, age and gender. Interviews were analysed using categorical content analysis to reveal eight main themes. Primary findings suggest that socio-cognitive factors such as behaviour, cognitive, personal factors and environmental all interact with each other, thus defining how one interprets health media content. This interaction, which accounts for how individuals control their thoughts, feelings and actions, is unique to every individual. Four dominant cognitions have been demonstrated to be correlated with the development of health anxiety: (1) the perceived likelihood of contracting or having an illness, (2) perceived awfulness of having an illness, (3) perceived inability to cope with illness, and (4) perceived inadequacy of medical resources for treating illness. Personal factors may also contribute to one’s health anxiety and the sick role. For example, individual personality traits will also have an influence on one’s perception of health vulnerability. Individuals who score high on Neuroticism have the tendency to worry about their health Bowlby’s attachment theory identifies dominant environmental influences. Of the three basic attachment patterns: secure, avoidant, and ambivalent styles, insecure attachment style can lead to a low level self efficiency and an anxious avoidance style when dealing with health issues and doctors. Self efficiency level determines one’s resiliency and ability to not overreact and panic about the risk messages depicted on health reality television shows. An individual’s efficacy is grounded in the belief they are capable of having the ability to exert control over the events that affect their lives. A participant’s experience of a major illness did not correlate to one developing health anxiety.
Keywords: anxiety, cultivate, social cognitive factors, personality traits, health talk television, attachments styles, self-efficacy