Your heart is racing, your palms are sweaty, and your body is restless. Your thoughts are coming quickly, one after another until your mind feels consumed with worry. You have spent the last 30 minutes with your old friend Dr. Google, in a futile effort to diagnose your symptoms, convincing yourself the worst-case scenarios are inevitable. Maybe you have also reached out to your physician through MyChart, or requested another appointment to discuss the same symptoms you called about last week.
Does this sound familiar? If so, you may be experiencing health anxiety.
Health anxiety is characterized by persistent and out-of-proportion effort spent trying to diagnose, treat, or cope with real or perceived symptoms. The truth is that people with health anxiety often experience very real and unpleasant physical sensations such as dizziness, numbness, pain, gastrointestinal concerns, and headaches, amongst others.
Our bodies are designed to interpret potential signs of danger or threat and to respond to such signals. However, sometimes our brains and bodies experience a disconnect, and while symptoms or sensations may be unpleasant, they are not in fact a sign of threat. In the context of health anxiety, the thoughts, emotions and responses we have to these signals are sometimes incorrect altogether, or disproportionate to the problem at hand, and they maintain the cycle.
It is often the case that our own histories of illness, experiences with death, impact of media intake, and triggers for stress outside of our health inform whether and how health anxiety manifests. It is common, realistic and important for us to notice and address changes in our physical or emotional health and to discuss any concerns we have with our providers.
When health anxiety is present, repeated reassurance from physicians or healthcare providers, normal lab work, and even negative test results are often not enough to adequately quiet the mind or settle our bodies. Repeated and interfering thoughts and behaviors that prevent us from doing the things we need and want to do during the day distinguish reasonable concerns from more problematic health-related worries.
Understandably, health anxiety may be more prolific now due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in addition to other illnesses that plague us at any time. So what can we do to ease our minds and focus on the people and things that matter to us most? Here are a few tips for how to manage health anxiety based on evidence-based approaches:
- Remember that your thoughts are not facts. Anxiety tries to protect us from pain, danger and discomfort, but often our worries are not warranted. What would happen if you challenged the thinking that promotes an over-focus on your body? What if you actually contracted something you are fearing- what is the worst that would happen? How would you cope if your worst fears came true?
- Calm your body and regulate your nervous system. You might utilize relaxation skills, deep breathing, mindfulness practice, being in nature, or other soothing activities that ground you back in the present moment. These are tools that can help you to refocus attention when thoughts about the body are all-consuming.
- Ask yourself: How much mental effort, time and energy does this thought or worry deserve? What is more meaningful to me that I could be focusing on or doing instead (i.e. playing with my children, completing a work task, engaging in a hobby). Clarifying values and then taking steps to do what brings you purpose and joy will reduce emotional distress.
- Be willing to experience discomfort. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know! If we can ride the waves of discomfort, whether it be tension in our muscles, frequent uncertainty, or racing thoughts, these concerns are more likely to dissipate on their own. Just like a wave in the ocean, intense experiences build, peak and then diminish; I promise your discomfort will not last forever, although I appreciate the worry that it might. As our response to our physical sensations and thoughts shifts, so too will the anxiety itself.
- Acknowledge your experience. Validate the emotions or sensations you are feeling in your body. Trying to talk yourself out of what is there may only amplify your distress. Open yourself up to curiosity about WHY these sensations or emotions are present; Perhaps there is an alternative explanation other than the one you have feared. Bodies are “noisy,” complex and ever-changing, so it is reasonable to consider the fact that your body may be experiencing shifts that are expected and healthy.
- Seek support from trusted healthcare professionals. Express concerns about any new or concerning symptoms you have, and trust in your provider’s recommendations about how to evaluate and treat those concerns. Allow your treatment team to support and educate you in ways that are validating but not enabling of the health anxiety.
If you need additional support in managing unhelpful thought patterns, intense emotions and intrusive behaviors related to health anxiety, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.