Let’s be honest: Feeling anxious from time to time is something we all experience. Whether it’s work stress, financial stress or relationship problems, there are many different things that can trigger anxiety. And one of the biggest sources of anxiety for people is their health.
Health anxiety can take on various forms. In some cases, people who have been recently diagnosed with an illness experience fear accompanied by a lot of questions regarding what to expect. In other cases, health anxiety is rooted in worry about a potential problem that hasn’t happened yet and a preoccupation with the thought of getting sick.
Signs You Have Health Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience to varying degrees. When someone has health anxiety, this means that they have worries and fears in relation to their health or health-related issues, Dr. Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor, explains. It is normal to experience anxiety about health-related concerns, especially with the current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also people who meet the criteria for a diagnosis called Illness Anxiety Disorder. This is a condition where someone is preoccupied with having or acquiring a serious illness.
Additionally, they may have little or no somatic symptoms, feel highly anxious about their health, become easily alarmed by personal health issues, find themselves engaging in repeatedly checking health status, or avoid going to doctors or hospitals, Dr. Lira de la Rosa adds. Illness Anxiety Disorder is diagnosed if the person has experienced these symptoms for more than six months and also experiences significant distress in their personal, educational or social life as a result of these symptoms.
Dr. Michele Goldman, psychologist and Hope for Depression Research Foundation Media Advisor provides a list of signs you have health anxiety:
- Constant worry or fixation about your health
- Checking your body for signs of illness—i.e. feeling for lumps, checking your skin
- Worry that a doctor or medical test missed something
- Frequent visits to a doctor or emergency room without medical necessity; other people avoid doctors and hospitals out of fear it will confirm there is something wrong with them.
- Obsessively look at health information online, especially when you have a perceived symptom
- Spending excessive time, energy or resources devoted to health concerns.
- Catastrophic thinking about your health
- Worrying about an illness even after a medical professional deems you healthy
- Misinterpretation of bodily symptoms—for example, you believe a headache means you have a brain tumor.
- Constantly talking about your health and potential illnesses to other people.
Things You Shouldn’t Do if You Have Health Anxiety
If you find yourself experiencing health anxiety, that’s okay—and luckily, there are things you can reduce the intensity of the anxiety. However, there are also behaviors that may lead to increased health anxiety, Dr. Lira de la Rosa states.
Usually, people with anxiety avoid situations that cause anxiety. If you find yourself avoiding doctors’ appointments, that may actually increase your anxiety. Moreover, health anxiety may cause some people to become preoccupied with checking their symptoms or health status and this can also increase that health anxiety.
Here are a few additional things to avoid making your anxiety worse, according to Dr. Goldman:
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- Spending hours online researching symptoms and health conditions
- Diagnosing yourself based on your internet search.
- Talking to strangers or multiple people about your health symptoms.
- Fixating on your health and focusing on bodily sensations
- Catastrophizing about what a physical sensation might mean
Ways to Cope with Health Anxiety
If you suspect you have health anxiety, here are some of the best ways to cope:
When it comes to any mental health concern, education can be helpful in validating and normalizing your experience. You can also work with a mental health provider to understand your symptoms, explore the triggers and causes, and learn new ways to reduce your health anxiety, Dr. Lira de la Rosa explains.
Write down what you’re thinking and feeling
Some people may find it helpful to keep track of their anxious thoughts and to note what their triggers are, says Dr. Lira de la Rosa. This can help you increase awareness of how health anxiety manifests itself in your life.
Dr. Goldman also recommends keeping a log of your anxiety-related behaviors. If you are someone who spends hours online researching or time spent daily checking your body for lumps, track this in a log. In time, see what you can slowly start to decrease (i.e. going from checking for lumps four times daily to three times daily).
This can be a great way to learn how to cope with your anxiety, understand the root causes of the anxiety, and receive support and validation from others about the fear, Dr. Goldman explains.
In cases when the anxiety is severe, you may need additional support.
Some people benefit from anti-anxiety medication like SSRIs to help cope with health anxiety, Dr. Goldman states. This can be short-term or longer-term depending upon the client and their reaction to or beliefs about medication.
Remaining in the here and now present moment can be helpful to regulate the nervous system, Dr. Goldman explains. This helps to ground us and get us less in our heads about our anxiety.
Challenging your thoughts
The thought “I have a lump on my neck, I must have cancer” can likely be challenged since there can be a multitude of reasons you might have a lump, says Dr. Goldman. See if you can describe your symptoms in a different way without the assumed negative outcome.