It’s natural to worry about your health sometimes but if it happens a lot, you may be experiencing health anxiety.
Signs of Health Anxiety
With health anxiety, you worry about your health to the point that it is excessive and has a big impact on your life.
You may have a chronic health condition that you worry about or you may spend a lot of time worrying about your future health and whether you’ll get things like cancer.
With a more general version of health anxiety, any symptoms you have are viewed in the worst possible light.
What if that pain in your leg means you have a blood clot or your ‘missed’ heartbeats are a sign of something more serious?
These kind of symptoms often have a far less serious cause but if you have health anxiety, you’ll tend to bypass these and go straight to the worst case scenarios. This is the basis of health anxiety: the relentless fear that you’ll develop a serious health problem or the belief that you already have.
You may spend lots of time looking online for information and see your GP on a regular basis because of your worries.
There is also another type of health anxiety based around avoidance. This can include tuning out of anything that may potentially make health anxiety worse, such as never watching programmes on television that may mention medical issues or not going to GP appointments. You may also avoid things that you think could put your health in danger when you have worrying symptoms, such as exercising, or sitting down (or even going to bed) when symptoms occur.
The Problem With Health Anxiety
Health anxiety can become a very vicious circle in that you’re constantly alert to signs that something isn’t right with your body and this can make you aware of things that you wouldn’t normally notice.
Most of the time, these things won’t be anything serious and they may even be signs of your anxiety. Your awareness of them causes more anxiety though and the cycle continues.
Being reassured that nothing is wrong can help to put your mind at rest for a short time but the anxiety usually comes back fairly quickly.
It may not be enough to get reassurance from a doctor as there is always a “what if?” lurking at the back of your mind, especially when more symptoms crop up. This usually means going back to the doctor to get new reassurance about symptoms but it can also lead to you wanting to get a second opinion from another doctor or arranging tests, for example.
Who Gets Health Anxiety?
If you’re an anxious person in general, your health is often just another thing to worry about so it’s not that surprising if you develop health anxiety.
Being affected by negative thinking patterns is another factor in whether you’re likely to develop health anxiety. This can make you more likely to think along the lines of “if it’s going to happen to anyone, it’s bound to be me”.
Stress can be another culprit, especially if you have health related concerns in the family.
Certain beliefs can fuel health anxiety too, including:
- Any change to your body is a sign that something is wrong
- A family history of certain health problems means you’ll get it too
- Doctors can miss things or get it wrong
- Having tests is the only way to know for sure that everything is okay
- Not knowing that you are totally well could mean that you’re actually ill
These beliefs can be incredibly unhelpful and keep your anxiety going if you genuinely believe them.
Treatment for Health Anxiety
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often used to treat health anxiety. This can help you to identify your thoughts and feelings and give you tools to manage them. Health anxiety is kept going by the negative, unhelpful and unhealthy thoughts that characterise it and breaking free from these is key for overcoming the hold it has on you.
A lot of the coping strategies that people with health anxiety use are actually keeping the anxiety strong in the mind, including focusing more on the body, constantly looking for reassurance, reading up on illness and avoidance behaviour.
CBT can help you to develop new ways to deal with health anxiety that are more helpful in relieving the anxiety.
Medications can sometimes be used too, especially if you have depression as well.