Health anxiety is one of the most common and distressing mental health problems, with around 1 in 10 people becoming anxious about their health at some point in life.
Health anxiety is when you fear for your health or that of others without justification – it’s a type of anxiety disorder. When you have health anxiety, you can’t switch off from unwelcome thoughts such as
Are you constantly worried about your health? Does even the slightest new and unusual bodily sensation or symptom have you running to the doctor, sure that it must be something serious? Are you often worried that, even though you’re being told by medical professionals that everything is okay, something undetected and undiagnosed is growing inside of you and slowly killing you? Do you find yourself checking stuff a lot — such as your heart rate or different parts of your body — looking for reassurance that nothing is wrong? Are you spending a good deal of time googling symptoms and researching medical conditions that you may or may not have? If so, you’re probably dealing with disordered health anxiety: health-focused anxiety that can cause a good deal of distress and an endless cycle of worry.
Although it’s never a bad idea to check in with the doctor every so often (get that annual physical!) or to do health screenings as recommended, excessive checking and reassurance-seeking may be making your anxiety worse instead of providing the much-desired comfort you’re hoping to gain from some of your behaviors.
WHAT TO STOP DOING
Here are four things you should stop doing (or at least do less of) if you have health anxiety, followed by some healthier ways of coping.
1. Stop googling symptoms.
We google symptoms to seek reassurance, not realizing that this kind of reassurance-seeking is actually increasing and reinforcing our anxiety.
2. Stop obsessing over your fitness watch.
If you have a Fitbit, Apple watch, or any other health tracking wrist device, ditch it if you find yourself constantly checking different measures such as your heart rate, heart rate variability, or ECG results. Like googling symptoms, this sort of behavior keeps us too internally focused and increases the anxiety surrounding health — and only provides very short-term comfort and reassurance.
3. Pay attention to your other checking and reassurance-seeking behaviors and limit them also.
Common checking behaviors include checking the mirror for discoloration of the skin or eyes, looking for new moles or bumps, weighing in or measuring different parts of the body, monitoring your pulse or blood pressure, asking family members or health professionals about your symptoms, and posting questions online for opinions about the health issues you have or suspect you have. Being aware of your body and checking for anything out of the ordinary can be smart and healthy when done as the medical community recommends, but the kind of checking that often comes along with health anxiety is generally excessive and unnecessary.
4. Stop interpreting every new and unusual bodily symptom as a sign of danger.
Our bodies do weird things. Everyone experiences odd pains and sensations every once in a while. It’s normal, and they usually come and go. The average person experiences these things as well but isn’t as internally focused and doesn’t pay the same level of attention to them.
It’s not easy to stop doing these things. It will be uncomfortable, especially at first. What you’ll likely find over time, though, is that stopping these things will liberate you from the prison that health anxiety can create that prevents you from living your life fully.
People with somatic symptom disorder (a condition closely related to health anxiety) often struggle with this because they’re so internally focused; their minds are always on their bodies, looking for any sign of danger. The more you focus on your body and symptoms, the more likely it is that you’ll find something to worry about.
So, what can you do instead of continuing to engage in these behaviors?
If you stop checking your body for reassurance, then what happens? You may naturally be inclined to avoid that anxiety because it’s uncomfortable. But the discomfort will probably pass quickly if you give yourself permission to feel it and stay with it rather than trying fruitlessly to avoid it.
There are other things you can do to help yourself manage your health anxiety:
1. Talk about your worries and concerns with a trusted friend or family member.
2. See a therapist who can help you understand and manage your health anxiety.
3. Join a support group for people with health anxiety.
4. Practice mindful meditation, yoga, or another relaxation technique daily.
5. Get moving! Try running, walking, biking, weight lifting, dancing—anything to help you release serotonin into your brain that will naturally decrease anxiety and depression.
6. Reach out for social support when you need it. It’s easy to withdraw and isolate yourself when you’re feeling anxious and depressed, but the more you get out of the house and interact with others, even in a small way, the better you’ll feel.
7. Stay away from self-help books that encourage catastrophizing or increase your levels of anxiety about health issues—including this one!
Anxiety is something that can be hard to deal with, but it is manageable. There are ways to overcome it, and by following some of the tips above, you may find yourself on your way to a less anxious life. Remember that everyone experiences anxiety in different ways, so what works for one person may not work for another. If you feel like you are in crisis, always seek professional help.
WHAT TO START DOING
It’s best to replace old habits with new ones. Here are some things you should do instead of the four behaviors above.
1. Check in with your doctor every once in a while.
Get to the doctor to rule out any true medical concerns if you’ve been avoiding this, get your annual physical, do the recommended screenings, and follow through on your doctor’s recommendations. The key here, though, is to follow what your doctor recommends and not what your anxiety dictates. Certainly seek medical help if you suspect something serious, but try to recognize when what you’re doing is just looking for short-term relief and reassurance. The comfort is fleeting and soon enough you’ll be on to the next thing.
2. Talk to a therapist.
Find a therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders – specifically one with experience working with health anxiety. A therapist can help you better understand your health anxiety and teach you some healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with it. They’ll also help you gain insight into how you got here and help you better recognize the thoughts and behaviors that are contributing to your anxiety. Overcoming health anxiety takes work, but a therapist can help you make strides.
People suffering from this disease often fear doctors and their focus is usually shifted towards negative thoughts, in other words, they tend to worry about going for diagnosis and instead stress out more. These kinds of people usually experience racing hearts and they fear getting diagnosed.
3. Recognize that some health anxiety is normal.
As humans, we all have some worries and concerns surrounding our health and well-being. When we are struggling with health anxiety, though, our threat detection system is just a little more heightened than it needs to be. This can lead to nonstop false alarms.
4. Be open to the idea of tolerating and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty.
The only thing that would likely bring your health anxiety to zero would be knowing that your risk of experiencing future health-related issues is zero — and that’s just not going to happen. As you start to accept and tolerate some risk above zero, you’ll find that you also start to shift out of anxious thinking and into the kind of life you really want to live.
5. Remember how many times you’ve been wrong about your anxious thoughts.
“What ifs” are at the core of health anxiety — or any other anxiety for that matter. “What if this headache is a tumor growing in my brain?” “What if this stomachache is a sign of something really serious?” “What if this pain in my leg is a deadly blood clot?” How many times have you found yourself having these anxious thoughts and questions? And how many times have you been wrong about those worst-case assumptions? Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably been wrong about most, if not all of them. Let that fact sink in.
6. Shift your focus outward.
One of the hallmarks of health anxiety is an overly strong internal focus. When you notice yourself scanning your body or engaging with and entertaining anxious thoughts, try to shift from an internal to a more outward focus. Find something to do. Call a friend, go for a walk, read a book, and get engaged with the world. The use of guided meditations can help here.
Physical symptoms of anxiety
The physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, dizziness, shaking or trembling, nausea, dry mouth, hyperventilation (rapid breathing), feeling hot or cold, shortness of breath, upset stomach, and diarrhea.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by the release of chemicals in your body during times of stress. These chemicals are called hormones.
Your heart begins to race, your hands become sweaty and you may begin to tremble. It’s almost as if the “fight-or-flight” response has been activated—your body is preparing for action.
Persistent health anxiety symptoms prompt action to be taken there are many ways used in treating health anxiety disorder including the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy or any other treatment options way that a mental health professional advises after medical tests have been done. Physical exam and physical sensations have to be taken especially if the patient has an existing medical condition.
A medical condition like brain cancer affects one’s health in their daily life and has a huge effect on their mental illness. Severe illness and any other serious medical condition have more devastating effects on people with health anxiety or any other anxiety disorders.
Is anxiety disorder a serious illness?
People with Illness anxiety disorder or any other health anxiety have more health worries in their everyday life and they live their life in a vicious cycle of illness anxiety. Their days are filled with worry about their health.
Some people even go as far as avoiding friends or family members that they think may be sick because it could cause them to become anxious and start worrying if this person may also have what could be a serious illness. If you’re anxious, you’ll probably imagine the worst-case scenario until proven otherwise. It’s called catastrophizing.
People with anxiety disorder often catastrophize or assume the worst will happen — even if there is little proof that it will. For example, they’ll assume their headaches mean a brain tumor. Or that a stomachache means they have cancer.
Being anxious about your health is normal when you’re worried about the disease it is advisable to be disorganized and start taking guided meditations.
Unhelpful thoughts, intrusive thoughts, and racing hearts are some of the symptoms of mental health disease.
There are many treatments for anxiety, which is a serious mental health disease. Treatment options may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication, or a combination of both. However, there are many people who don’t seek treatment because they feel it’s not a “real” illness.
Physical symptoms of anxiety should not be taken lightly and should be brought to the attention of a medical professional. Physical exams and tests may need to be conducted in order to rule out any existing medical conditions that could be causing the physical symptoms. Once any existing conditions have been ruled out, treatment for anxiety can begin.