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Health anxiety - how to break the cycle

Sometimes known as hypochondria, health anxiety is a condition in which we are preoccupied with our health, in the absence of any serious medical condition. Everyone worries about health at times. We are even encouraged to check ourselves for signs of disease like diabetes and cancer. However, whilst a degree of vigilance can certainly be useful, sometimes we can become preoccupied with our health to a disproportionate degree, constantly on the look-out for symptoms, googling anything we can’t readily explain and tormenting ourselves with worst-case scenarios.

For some, this leads to frequent visits to the doctor or A&E in search of reassurance. For others, it can lead to avoidance of medical investigation and having our fears confirmed. In either case, anxiety about health comes to dominate our lives and can become self-perpetuating. The more we worry about our health the more vigilant we are. And the more we look, the more we find! Soon it’s possible to get into a seemingly never-ending cycle; moving from hyper-vigilance to noticing symptoms, interpreting these as signs of ill health, seeking out reassurance, and anxiety abating until the next symptom is noticed. While reassurance offers short term relief, it doesn’t address the underlying causes of our anxiety or give us the opportunity to learn ways of better managing it.

Further more, anxiety itself can create symptoms, especially if anxiety escalates to the point of panic attacks. Often people who suffer from panic attacks are initially of the view that they are in the throes of a medical emergency and respond as though they have had a near-death experience, even though this hasn’t actually been the case. For more information about panic attacks and what to do about them, check out this article.

The reason behind health anxiety is personal to the individual. It can be existential in nature, meaning it has connection to issues like mortality and uncertainty. This can be triggered by a health scare or the death of someone we love, bringing us uncomfortably close to confronting some of the more painful realities of life.

If you are a worrier by nature, health anxiety may also be a manifestation of your usual worry pattern. Ask yourself, if I wasn’t worrying about this, then what? It may be that you worry about health to avoid worrying about something else. As such, your health anxiety is part of a wider pattern of anxiety that needs to be addressed in terms of the various cognitive distortions and difficulties in managing emotions that are features of being a worrier. You can find out more here about managing worry in general.

If you are constantly worried about your health, here are five steps you can take:

Pay attention: There are many ways that you can keep yourself worried and often these relate to what you pay attention to. This could mean reading news stories about people getting sick or doctors missing symptoms or it could be about paying attention to every ache and pain in your body. Instead, pay attention to the exact opposite thing, in other words: good health. Notice your own health, notice the health of those around you. Whilst inevitably there are times for all of us when we are unhealthy, most of us are in good enough health most of the time. The idea is not to stop worrying - we need to notice when something needs checking out - but we are far more likely to make an accurate assessment of a new or strange symptom if we are not compounding the issue with anxiety and the physical symptoms of anxiety. In a sense we need to both tune in and tune out. We need to periodically tune in to our bodies to know what is normal for us and we also need to tune out so we are not hyper-vigilant.

Stop interpreting: Become attentive also to your inner dialogue. You might find it goes something like this: 'Hmm, what was that strange feeling in my chest? That was weird. That must mean it’s something serious. Maybe I’m having a heart attack!’ And then comes the internet research and visits to the doctor. Of course you want to notice when something is very wrong. However, this is problematic when you jump to an interpretation which is distorted, for example, when every sensation that appears out of the ordinary is interpreted as indicative of something serious. Another issue with rushing to a worst case interpretation is that our bodies are likely to respond with anxiety symptoms, which can compound our fears. As noted, it becomes very difficult to sense what is going on when we are in a high anxiety state. Instead, try to notice without interpreting. Let your body tell you if it’s something serious, not the other way around.

Adopt balanced thoughts; When you catch yourself in an internal dialogue like the one above, interrupt yourself. Replace irrational thoughts with balanced ones. Balanced ones aren't necessarily positive, they are simply realistic. So you are not arguing with yourself in a variation of: 'There is something wrong with me! No, there isn’t!' Instead, you are acknowledging the possibility of something being wrong alongside the more likely scenario that there is nothing wrong. A balanced thought might be something like: 'It’s normal to have bodily changes and aches and pains from time to time. Usually it’s nothing serious.'

Change your relationship to worry: You may well buy into the idea that worrying and hyper-vigilance about health is a good thing that keeps you safe. Certainly a degree of proportionate worry is healthy and keeps us motivated to make good choices such as not smoking or eating a balanced diet. However, excessive worrying can take all the pleasure out of life! Make a list of all the advantages of worrying (including all the irrational ones) and all the disadvantages. You may find that this shows you that it doesn’t make sense to worry and you can use this knowledge at times when you are stuck in your anxieties.

Notice the underlying beliefs: You may also notice irrational beliefs, for example, that worrying somehow prevents bad things happening or worrying makes you feel more in control. These give you clues to other issues that might underlie your worrying habit. It may be that on some level your worry serves you or gives you the illusion of protection. This may be indicative of difficulties in living with uncertainty, or the need to control or a general feeling that the world is unsafe. It can also indicate fears about our capacity to cope in crisis. Sometimes these anxieties and beliefs can be longstanding and deep rooted. Online psychotherapy or online counselling can help you understand why you hold such beliefs and how to change them so that you are more able to cope with the uncertainties in life - including uncertainties about your health - so that you can enjoy the present and cope better with whatever life brings.

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