Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Coping with health anxiety

A couple of years ago, for a whole week I woke up every night drenched in sweat and started to think there was something going seriously wrong with my body. Like a lot of us do, I Googled my symptoms and convinced myself that I must have a life-threatening illness. Eventually I realised that my thermostat had actually malfunctioned and was cranking up the heat in my flat every night at 3am.

If you’re anything like me, there may have been times when you’ve mistaken a change in bodily function as something more scary or sinister – and there’s not always a clear cause like a broken thermostat to take the blame. Sometimes things seem to change or go wrong in our bodies for no apparent reason, and this can be really frightening. It’s perfectly normal to experience worries about our health from time to time. However, if these worries start to negatively impact your everyday life and prevent you from having fun, you might be experiencing health anxiety.

What does health anxiety look like?

  • Your worries about health are way bigger than the actual health risks.
  • You believe that harmless sensations are a sign of serious illness. 
  • Concerns about your health are making you feel really anxious or distressed.
  • Your worries persist even after reassurance or tests from the GP. 
  • You avoid certain places, topics or activities so you don’t worry as much about health and illness. 
  • You’re struggling with thoughts or images about health or illness. 

What impact does health anxiety have on our lives?

Health anxiety can have a lot of different impacts on the lives of those struggling with it. For example, worries about health might become so consuming that it is hard to focus on work. This can have negative consequences if you need to take time off work. You may also feel stressed trying to access healthcare or feel like you’re not being taken seriously by your doctor. In addition, your relationships might be impacted if you are constantly looking for reassurance from your friends and family or you are avoiding social situations which make your anxiety worse. 

It doesn’t matter whether or not you have actual symptoms or whether you have an illness. The problem is the level of distress you experience in response to the sensations in your body and the impact this has on your life.

Managing health anxiety

Mindfulness: One of the best ways to help reduce health anxiety is through practising mindfulness. There are many mindfulness activities that can help you to notice your thoughts, feelings and sensations while bringing your attention back to the present moment, helping you to disengage from unhelpful worries. For more about mindfulness, download our free mindfulness booklet here >

Challenging unhelpful thoughts and beliefs: By beginning to notice your thoughts and beliefs, you can then start to challenge them by weighing up the ‘evidence’ ‘for’ and ‘against’ that thought. By doing this, you can develop a more rational alternative to the thoughts and beliefs about illness, which can help reduce anxiety.

Reducing avoidance: Just remember that it is very natural to want to avoid things that make us feel anxious and uncomfortable. However, sometimes this is unhelpful in the long term as it prevents us from learning something about that situation. For example, if you avoid exercise because you worry about increasing your heart rate, you prevent yourself from learning that exercising and increasing your heart rate doesn’t make you ill. By reducing avoidance, you can begin to reduce health anxiety. 

Reducing checking and reassurance seeking: Some health checking is recommended, such as checking your skin for any changes. However, when checking becomes excessive it can actually contribute to health anxiety by increasing doubt. Checking too much might also make parts of your body feel more sensitive. This can make you feel more worried and anxious about getting sick. By reducing checking behaviours or reassurance seeking (e.g. looking up symptoms online), you start feeling less anxious and can disengage from the worries about your health. 

Therapy: Talking therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) are a great way to help you start managing your health anxiety. CBT uses techniques similar to the ones listed above to help you understand how your health anxiety developed, assist you in identifying what keeps it going and can give you new ways to cope with the anxiety. 

Further information

  • FREE WEBINAR AND BOOKLET: For more information about health anxiety, sign up to our webinar 'Understanding And Managing Health Anxiety' taking place on Friday 25 June 2021 at 12 noon BST. A free pdf booklet on health anxiety will be provided during the webinar. To find out more and book a place, click here >
  • If you're interested in speaking to a psychological practitioner about your difficulties and to get support, get in touch with First Psychology and we can help you find an appropriate person to talk to.

Stephanie Handley works as an applied psychology practitioner at First Psychology Glasgow and Online. She will be presenting the webinar 'Understanding And Managing Health Anxiety'

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