Imagine you have a dog that you have trained to bark at intruders.
Yet, instead of only alerting you when there is a danger, the dog barks at everyone: the mailman, your boyfriend, strangers passing by on the sidewalk. In fact, the dog’s barking prevents you from inviting friends and family over, impedes you from taking the dog on walks, and keeps you constantly on guard.
For those coping with health anxiety, or illness anxiety disorder, this barking is a false alarm triggered in the mind.
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is a psychological condition in which the mind confuses normal bodily experiences with serious health concerns. Like the barking dog, those who are coping with health anxiety can mistake innocent sensations as indicators of a life-threatening diagnosis and react with an intense response.
Coping with health anxiety can take on many forms. Typically, patients will demonstrate patterns of extreme preoccupation with their health.
Examples of these patterns are:
- Being absorbed in monitoring bodily functions such as breathing or one’s heartbeat
- Obsessing over minor physical flaws
- Over-analyzing bodily sensations such as headaches, aches, tiredness, etc.
- Being convinced that you might have a disease that is presented in a news story
- Researching every symptom or becoming obsessed with researching diseases
- Looking for constant reassurance from others about your health
- Avoiding doctor appointments because you fear being diagnosed with a serious health issue
If these preoccupations last for more than six months and if no other reasonable explanation—such as the person suffering from another mental health disorder—can be found, the diagnosis of health anxiety, or illness anxiety disorder, is usually made.
Socially, health anxiety can prevent a patient from connecting with others. They might avoid places or people that can trigger their anxiety, be afraid to try new things for fear of injury, and more.
Core Beliefs Associated with Health Anxiety
Those coping with health anxiety are often convinced that what they are experiencing is a real medical concern. However, for many, the source of their physical obsession comes from a psychological place.
Anxiety disorders usually result from unhealthy core beliefs about oneself. For example, someone with health anxiety might have a concern that being healthy means never showing any bodily weaknesses. Similarly, a person with general anxiety might become nervous about certain situations because they have preconceived expectations about perfection.
It is important to note that those who suffer from anxiety demonstrate physical symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, chest pain, and aches. These physical effects of general anxiety can actually trigger health anxiety in a patient, creating a vicious cycle of nervousness.
This cycle can begin as a result of having once experienced (as a child or otherwise) or witnessed someone close experience a serious health concern. Also, someone who has seen death or who has a family member who also suffers from health anxiety can develop the condition as well.
Strategies for Coping with Health Anxiety
Of course, strategies for treatment should be discussed with your therapist. Although, some coping methods can be done on your own while others may require assistance from your care provider.
1. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a treatment that focuses less on dismissing your preoccupation with the body and more on processing how you think and acknowledging behavior patterns.
The concept behind CBT is that the thoughts we have or that we associated with something produces specific feelings that then dictate how we behave. For example, if you are constantly thinking about getting sick, it will eventually develop into feelings of anxiety. Those feelings, in turn, might then direct you to seek medical care or stay up all night on the internet researching the symptoms.
In other words, it is not about getting rid of the dog but rather retraining the dog to understand who is a threat and who is innocent.
Thus, CBT can help retrain your mind by identifying fears and unfounded beliefs about medical illnesses you don’t have. It can teach you different ways to view bodily sensations and how to change your responses to them. It aims to help you be aware of how your worries affect you and teach you skills to tolerate and cope with the stress. And it assists you to improve your daily functioning at home and work.
2. Limit access to technology or other forms or reassurance
Gradually reducing your access to technology such as the phone or iPad will prevent you from researching every symptom and disease you come across. Start with small steps such as only allowing yourself to google symptoms once a day or week.
In addition, begin reducing the act of seeking reassurance from others. Set limits on doctor visits or who you allow yourself to discuss your symptoms with.
3. Get active!
Those suffering from health anxiety often isolate themselves or avoid certain activities that they think will make them sick.
However, staying active and involved with your community will show you that you are just as healthy and resilient as your peers. It will also keep you socially engaged which can reduce feelings of anxiety.
Start by re-introducing one activity a week that you’ve avoided in the past and work up from there.
Coping with health anxiety can interrupt your daily life and cause you to spiral into a bed of nerves. Talk with your provider today about the best treatment plan for you. With help from a professional, you can find peace and comfort once more.