Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Do you spend time Googling your symptoms? Or think that your headache is a symptom of a serious illness? If you’ve answered yes, then you could be experiencing health anxiety.
There’s no doubt that the current pandemic is making us all more aware of our own bodies and our health, and more specifically, and making us think about how we become ill. Before the pandemic, we may have gone into a supermarket without any thought, but now it seems that before we have even got through the door, we need to have our PPE armour on.
As restrictions are being lifted, how do we return to some sort of normality? Maybe you have noticed yourself having increasing worries around illness; or maybe you have noticed yourself feeling unable to leave the house without wearing gloves or a facemask. This article will look at health anxiety, and how to manage these thoughts and feelings.
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is a specific type of anxiety disorder, where individuals worry about being ill or getting ill. If you find yourself experiencing the symptoms below, then you might be suffering with health anxiety;
· Worrying about your health
· Constantly seeking reassurance from others regarding your health
· Excessively checking your body for signs of illness (such as lumps or pain)
· Googling symptoms or visiting the doctors/hospital more than usual
· Avoiding watching TV programmes to do with illness
· Avoiding physical activities
Having concerns about your health is rational and normal, and seeking medical advice about concerns is always advised. However, when these worries and concerns become distressing, and start interfering with your day-to-day life, then seeking professional help might be useful. If you struggle with general anxiety, then you might notice your worries have increased and may have become more health specific.
Health anxiety relates to the relationship between your thoughts and your body. When experiencing a bodily sensation, our brains may interpret that as a physical health problem, when in fact it could be a symptom of anxiety. For example if you experience tightness in your chest, some may interpret that to be a heart attack, rather than a symptom of anxiety. This may then result in frequent trips to the doctors or even to a hospital. This then feeds into seeking reassurancebehaviours that are common with health anxiety. Seeking reassurance can be a common behaviour that individuals engage in to relieve anxiety. There’s no doubt that this temporarily relieves your anxiety, however, this will not ease symptoms of anxiety long term. Excessive reassurance seeking can be debilitating for individuals and can interfere with how individuals interact with others.
How to work through health anxiety
So, you’ve realised that you use reassurance seeking as a way to cope with health anxiety, but how can you reduce it?
The first thing to remember is that we can never be 100% sure that we are in perfect health. When we engage in the cycle of reassurance, we are avoiding accepting the fact that our health is uncertain. Sitting with the unknown is a huge challenge when it comes to anxiety, as we do not know how to accept the not knowing.
Combatting reassurance seeing behaviours
The Centre for Clinical Interventions advises individuals to assess how beneficial your current checking behaviours are. The first question to ask yourself is, what behaviour am I wanting to work on? This could be scanning your body for symptoms, or seeking reassurance from a partner. The next step is to ask; what are the advantages of engaging in this behaviour?What are the disadvantages? What is my goal and do my behaviours achieve it?From here, you can begin to assess the usefulness of your current behaviours. Finally, question whether you need to reduce, delay, or remove this behaviour. Reducing your behaviour might involve checking your body for symptoms twice a week instead of everyday – the key thing to remember here is that you will do this gradually. Jumping straight from everyday to twice a week is a huge change and you may find it too overwhelming. Delaying your behaviour involves selecting a certain time to carry out the compulsion. So, you notice yourself having the thought of “I think I have a sore throat, I need to Google what the symptoms of COVID-19 are”.Instead of engaging in that behaviour straightaway, delay it until 7pm that evening, for example. By this time, you may have forgotten what your worry was. Removing the behaviour altogether is a great goal to have, but to try this straightaway would be a big step. Try the reducing method to eventually achieve this goal.
Riding out the wave of anxiety
Psychology today discusses the act of ridingthe wave of anxiety; riding the wave will eventually bring you back to the shore where you will feel calmer and grounded. This is a nice image to visualise when experiencing higher levels of anxiety. R.I.D.E is an analogy that could be useful to remember;
The takeaway message here is to engage in mindfulness when experiencing anxiety. Notice your surroundings – what can you see, smell, hear, taste and touch? You might want to listen to some music, or read a page of your book. You should notice your anxiety begin to reduce.
Watch less news
A simple, yet useful recommendation is watching less of the news. Watching the news can cause a lot of anxiety for anyone, but if you struggle with anxiety or have experienced health anxiety before, then constantly hearing that the outside world is dangerous, will not ease these feelings.
This article has hopefully provided some useful information on how to manage any difficulties that you are experiencing. If you feel able to begin incorporating some of these into your weekly schedule then give it a go! However, this does not replace professional treatment. If you feel that you need more support then please contact a therapy service. You might also like to read about making an anxiety safety plan.