Do you always worry that you may have a serious illness? Are you constantly searching up symptoms online? Do these worries keep you up at night? Worrying about your health is normal from time to time. But when these worries start to impact your ability to function, you may want to seek help in order to determine a course of action.
Worrying About Your Health Vs. Health Anxiety
Being worried about your health isn’t the same thing as having health anxiety (formerly known as hypochondria). There is a difference between someone who has minimal symptoms and is still anxious about being sick and someone who is worried about actual symptoms.
People with health anxiety often misinterpret normal physical symptoms and think that they are something more serious. For instance, they may worry that a headache is a brain tumor or that forgetting where they put their keys could possibly be dementia.
So how do you know if it’s health anxiety or if you may actually be sick? Here are some signs…
- You have no symptoms, but are still anxious about being sick
- When a doctor tells you that you aren’t sick or a test shows that you’re healthy, you still feel worried
- You visit your doctor regularly with fears of illness and needs of reassurance
- You are constantly searching up health information online
- Excessive body checking
Continuing to worry about your health causes your body’s alarm system to go off. This produces symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, tightness of chest, difficulty with breathing, sweating, nausea, dizzy, jitters etc…). These symptoms are real and give your mind more cause for concern, even though the thoughts are often false.
Discerning the difference between anxiety and a serious medical condition can be difficult. Therefore, it’s important to rule out a medical condition first. Once you’ve seen your doctor and received a clean bill of health, you can begin treating your health anxiety.
What are the main causes of health anxiety?
There are a variety of factors that may contribute to the development and onset of problems with health anxiety. These include:
Genetics: Some people are born with a temperament that leads them to be more prone to experiencing anxiety than most people. In addition, most forms of anxiety run in families to some degree.
Family background and childhood experiences: Individuals who experience a stressful family life during their childhood (such as family conflict, high family stress, or abuse) are more likely to develop problems with anxiety and depression. People who have problems with anxiety in general may be more likely to also have worries and fears about health and illness.
Social Learning: We can learn many things from our parents, siblings, or other significant people in our lives. Sometimes these lessons can be positive but at times we can pick up negative things from those around us. Children often model what their parents or siblings do. For example, if an anxious parent avoids a range of situations, children watching this are likely to behave in similar ways (i.e., engaging in avoidance).
Illness and death experience: Health anxiety may also be related to stressful experiences with illness and death in childhood or during the adult years.
What psychological treatments are used to treat health anxiety?
The primary psychological treatment that has been shown to be effective with this problem is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). This treatment involves:
- understanding anxiety and how problems with anxiety can develop;
- decreasing specific behaviors such as checking one’s body for symptoms and asking for reassurance about one’s health;
- learning how to counter the excessive worries about health and illness;
- overcoming avoidance of situations related to illness and death using exposure strategies;
- learning to face worries about illness realistically and directly which can reduce the fear associated with these thoughts;
- coping with fear of death by emphasizing the importance of accepting the reality of death and enjoying life to the fullest; and
- general anxiety management strategies such as relaxation techniques and increasing exercise.
6 Tips for Coping with Health Anxiety
- Remember that your thoughts are not facts. Anxiety tries to protect us from pain, danger and discomfort, but often our worries are not warranted. What would happen if you challenged the thinking that promotes an over-focus on your body? What if you actually contracted something you are fearing- what is the worst that would happen? How would you cope if your worst fears came true?
- Calm your body and regulate your nervous system. You might utilize relaxation skills, deep breathing, mindfulness practice, being in nature, or other soothing activities that ground you back in the present moment. These are tools that can help you to refocus attention when thoughts about the body are all-consuming.
- Ask yourself: How much mental effort, time and energy does this thought or worry deserve? What is more meaningful to me that I could be focusing on or doing instead (i.e. playing with my children, completing a work task, engaging in a hobby). Clarifying values and then taking steps to do what brings you purpose and joy will reduce emotional distress.
- Be willing to experience discomfort. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know! If we can ride the waves of discomfort, whether it be tension in our muscles, frequent uncertainty, or racing thoughts, these concerns are more likely to dissipate on their own. Just like a wave in the ocean, intense experiences build, peak and then diminish; I promise your discomfort will not last forever, although I appreciate the worry that it might. As our response to our physical sensations and thoughts shifts, so too will the anxiety itself.
- Acknowledge your experience. Validate the emotions or sensations you are feeling in your body. Trying to talk yourself out of what is there may only amplify your distress. Open yourself up to curiosity about WHY these sensations or emotions are present; Perhaps there is an alternative explanation other than the one you have feared. Bodies are “noisy,” complex and ever-changing, so it is reasonable to consider the fact that your body may be experiencing shifts that are expected and healthy.
- Seek support from trusted healthcare professionals. Express concerns about any new or concerning symptoms you have, and trust in your provider’s recommendations about how to evaluate and treat those concerns. Allow your treatment team to support and educate you in ways that are validating but not enabling of the health anxiety.
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