Getting Your Head Around Health Anxiety

Are you someone who finds themselves constantly worrying about their health? Do you find yourself “Googling” symptoms when you experience any strange sensations in your body, only to be convinced that you are suffering from a serious medical condition? Have you noticed that your efforts to find answers to your symptoms is impacting you in a negative way? We recognise anxiety we may be experiencing about our relationships, work, school or finances, but often we are not aware that we may be suffering from what is called health anxiety.

Before we can discuss health anxiety, it is important to understand what health is, as it can have different meanings to different people. Health is commonly defined as the absence of disease, injury or disability. As health varies so greatly between people and cultures, the definition of health has been extended to include a persons state of physical, mental and social functioning. Rather than it being black and white (either you have or don’t have health in these areas) it is helpful to think of health as being on a continuum, ranging from poor to excellent.

What is health anxiety?
We experience anxiety when we feel like something bad is about to happen. Anxiety is an instinctual survival mechanism that alerts us to danger and initiates our “fight/flight/freeze” response. Back in the age of hunters and gatherers, this mechanism was extremely helpful as it helped us fight or flee from potentially harmful situations, helping to preserve the human race. Nowadays, it is unlikely (depending on where you live!) that you will walk out your front door and be confronted with a tiger, so we are still experiencing this fight or flight response, without necessarily the imminent danger. Anxiety can also arise when we perceive there to be a threat. For example, a person feeling fearful that they may be rejected in a situation, or that they are going to get in trouble with their boss – these things haven’t actually happened, however, we are feeling worry about them occurring. In both of these examples, something bad may or may not happen, the main thing is that if we believe that something bad might happen, then we may experience anxiety.

Health anxiety is therefore the experience of feeling that there is a threat to your health, consequently triggering your anxiety response. Some of the common health related fears are having or developing cancer, a heart attack, a sexually transmitted disease, a severe mental illness, Alzheimer’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis or a thyroid disorder. Some people don’t necessarily worry about a specific illness or disorder, they may generally feel that something just isn’t right. In some cases, the fear we have may not be for ourselves, but the fear that a loved one may become ill.

Health anxiety can become a problem when they are excessive, out of proportion, persistent or cause significant distress.

If you’re identifying with the symptoms of health anxiety, your mind may be shouting at you BUT I HAVE REAL SYMPTOMS?! This is a normal response. Health anxiety doesn’t discriminate. It can affect people who are for the most part “healthy”, people who have real or unexplained symptoms, and people who already have a diagnosed medical condition. The status of your health is not the issue when it comes to health anxiety – the issue is how you are coping with your symptoms or condition. If you’re responding by constantly worrying, googling, seeking reassurance or checking, then health anxiety may be a problem for you.

So I have health anxiety…what do I do now?

Focusing on symptoms can help to amplify their intensity, therefore perpetuating the anxiety cycle. Learning to retrain your attention is an important step in overcoming health anxiety. Meditation practices and mindfulness activities are fantastic ways to learn to refocus your attention, or bring yourself back to the present when you find your mind wandering.

Worry postponement is another beneficial tool to help overcome the anxiety. Instead of allowing your mind to snowball into catastrophic thinking about significant health issues, acknowledge the thought, write it down, “postpone” thinking about this until a designated time. Set a designated “worry time” where you allow yourself to think about only the things you have listed. After practicing this for a time, reflect on the following: what happened to the worries you postponed? Did you still need to worry about them later? What happened to the symptoms you were worrying about?

Using a thought diary, start to note down the problematic thoughts you are having about your health, and the impact they are having on you feelings and behaviours. When are these thoughts occurring? Where are you? What are you doing? Reflecting on the answers to these questions can help give you insight into triggers. Once you’ve identified triggers and problematic thoughts, you can then start to practice challenging these unhelpful thoughts.

In order to challenge negative thoughts, ask yourself:

  • What is the factual evidence for this thought?
  • What is the factual evidence against this thought?
  • How does it affect me when I expect the worst?
  • Are there any possible other explanations for the symptoms I am experiencing right now?
  • What can I do to manage this symptom or situation right now?
  • What would be a more realistic thought about this symptom or situation?

If you try these strategies and find that health anxiety is still causing you difficulty, it may be time for you to seek professional help. Accessing a Psychologist or other Mental Health Worker may assist you to further develop ways of managing the anxiety and reduce the distress associated with experiencing health related anxiety. It is always important that if you are experiencing symptoms of physical illness that you go see your local doctor.

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