Health Anxiety: What is it? Do you have it? And How can you Manage it?
Sometimes it can be challenging to not worry about your own health and the health of others. Add a global pandemic to the mix, with dramatic health focused news, and it becomes that much more complex.
In fact, it’s normal to worry about your health to a certain extent. It’s understandable that anxiety levels would be slightly higher, as we’ve all been forced to vigilantly focus on avoiding sickness. This season of change has introduced social distancing, wearing face masks, absorbing information on the jab, checking in and taking PCR and RAT tests. Additional to this is the worry of visiting elderly loved ones, or going to that dinner party, for fear of catching or spreading the dreaded C word.” To worry if something bad might happen is actually part of our natural survival instinct and can be particularly helpful for us in real life threatening situations.
However, if this worry begins to consume a person, leading to feelings of anxiety, it can be impairing. There are two types of health anxiety: Somatic Symptom Disorder and illness anxiety. Both can be debilitating and a serious problem when it becomes more entrenched. But don’t be disheartened, there are definitely ways to manage health anxiety, which we will explore further below.
So what is health anxiety?
Health anxiety occurs when there is a perceived threat of illness. So, if you spend a lot of time worrying about being unwell or becoming unwell, it may be worth reading on.
“Let’s consider this example; you have a headache, it persists for a few days and you start to feel dizzy. You begin to think you may have something seriously wrong. Maybe it’s a brain tumour or maybe early onset dementia. Doctor Google has been helpful in entertaining your self-diagnosis. So you book in a Doctor’s appointment stat. The doctor issues you a clean bill of health and suggests sleep, water and less stress is needed.
You may still be thinking what if the doctor is wrong, or that doctors have missed picking up on diagnoses before. You may also think that you may need a second opinion. So you book in to see a specialist for neurological disorders. After numerous tests, you receive the all clear. Yet, that nagging feeling that you are actually suffering from an undiagnosed illness remains.
It affects your ability to live life to the fullest, as you’re constantly living in a state of fear. Although health anxiety is a mental health condition, anxiety can physically impact the body. This can emerge through dizziness or headaches, to name a few. This can leave you feeling like the issue is physical and not mental. “If you can relate to this, don’t worry, you’re far from alone. This mental health condition exists on a spectrum, It is relevant that most people may feel anxious at least some of the time. In fact, approximately 5.7% of the Australian population have been diagnosed with health anxiety.
How Covid has exacerbated health anxiety
Kylie Lepri, a qualified psychotherapist, states:
“health anxiety was already challenging enough prior to the pandemic for those often consumed by health worries and heightened attention around physical symptoms. Now when you add to the mix Covid-19, an illness that has presented with so much uncertainty, attention to symptoms and high risks of hospitalisation and death it is no surprise that it has contributed to greater vulnerability and led to significantly higher levels of fear, distress and worry, even for those with no prior history of health anxiety.”
While Dr Santomauro, Lead researcher at the University of Queensland, said:
“We estimated that cases of major depressive disorder and anxiety disorders increased by 28 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively in 2020, with women affected more than men, and younger people affected more than older age groups,”
So let’s explore what causes health anxiety and some strategies to overcome or reduce the worries, so you can become a healthier and happier person.
What are common causes of health anxiety?
1) Being ultra aware of a slight feeling or pain, and allowing the potential risk of harm from this pain to consume your thinking.– For example, “my breast is sore, I have breast cancer, who will look after my kids when I die?” These thoughts can increase your heart rate, make you actually feel ill, and tighten your muscles. You feel a tight feeling in your chest, a pang in your breast, and this can kick off a horrible cycle where the more you pay attention to these symptoms, the more noticeable they become, and the more anxiety it causes.
2) Genetics – You tend to catastrophise a situation, picturing the worst case scenario, due to family history of health anxiety.
3) Alarmist Media – A German study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that pandemic anxiety was elevated for people who exhibited health anxiety and Googled health information excessively. Further, watching fear mongering news and illness based television shows like: Dr Oz, Ambulance Australia and RPA are common contributors.
4) Past experience – You may have experienced serious illness earlier in life, or had a family member seriously ill.
5) A Global Pandemic and lifting of restrictions – For people suffering from OCD, this risk increases further, as they’re being told to do all the things they are usually instructed not to focus on, like vigilant hand sterilisation, wearing masks, not touching surfaces, etc.
Furthermore, the lifting of the pandemic restrictions may also trigger health anxiety, even among those with no prior experience of the condition. For many, face masks, social distancing, and other safety measures have brought some sense of comfort and protection during this time.. With cases of COVID-19 variants on the rise, people may feel more vulnerable.
What strategies will help me overcome health anxiety?
Now you know you’re not alone in this, and understand that possibly your health concerns are actually causing additional stress and concern in your life. It’s helpful to know that these strategies have proven effective for those feeling similarly to you.
1) Talk with a friend or family member to share your concerns – as these concerns can lead to feelings of distress and isolation. As the old idiom states: “A problem shared is a problem halved.”
2) Write a list, journal, or voice recording – (if that’s easier) of your most common health anxiety thoughts, and recognise them as fear. Awareness around your mindset can help alleviate the worrying thoughts.
3) Set healthy boundaries – There are numerous coping strategies to help you ease back into normality and deal with health anxiety. One way to do this is to reduce social media and TV consumption, especially news and shows that focus on health concerns. Also avoid looking at your symptoms on Google.
4) Learn to recognise when you’re stressed and how this affects your body — and regularly practice stress management and relaxation techniques. Practice one or several of these: Yoga, meditation, affirmations, walking in nature, gardening, dabbling with art, listening to empowering or informative podcasts or audio books, or apps like the calm app. These are all methods to help reduce stress and anxiety.
5) See a Doctor – If you still have specific and continual concerns, book an appointment to see a primary care doctor you trust, so that you feel more confident with whatever results they give you, to rule out any actual physical conditions.
6) Seek mental health support – If you’ve gotten the all-clear from a medical professional, and you’re still spending a lot of time worrying about symptoms, then seek mental health support. A qualified psychotherapist who specialises in health anxieties can use their range of therapy modalities to support you through this challenging time. You don’t have to live with this fear, and you certainly don’t have to do it alone.
Like other anxiety disorders, health anxiety can become debilitating and vary in severity over time. So it’s important to recognise when your health worries begin to interfere with your life, and seek help from a mental health professional.
At Kylie Lepri Counselling, we understand that every client’s needs are different. Our team of therapists use evidence-based treatment strategies and will provide a customised plan to meet your specific needs. We understand that COVID-19 has exacerbated health anxiety in many, and you may not yet feel comfortable leaving the house. Please know that we provide counselling online via Zoom, and in-person at our COVID-safe Bella Vista rooms so you can seek support from the comfort of your couch or ours.
Do you need Counselling Support?
If you or a family member are struggling with health anxiety, and seeking counselling support, contact Kylie Lepri for a FREE 15-minute phone call to discuss your situation and find out she she can help. Call us now on 0404 032636 or book your free phone call online.
The team at Kylie Lepri Counselling are all registered Counsellors and Psychotherapists. Specialising in Individual, Relationship and Family therapy, providing support to clients all over Australia. Get Kylie’s FREE ebook: 5 Proven Strategies to help manage stress today, by joining her newsletter below.