If you can’t stop worrying about your health, these six tools will help

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 hello@galiacollaborative.com.

Sarah is a licensed clinical psychologist and expert in women's behavioral health. She specializes in supporting women through physical and mental health concerns, relationship stressors, perinatal challenges, and menopause.

25 thoughts on “If you can’t stop worrying about your health, these six tools will help”

  1. Hi Sarah,
    I suffer vey intense health anxiety.
    Is it possible to talk with you? Do you and sessions I can pay for?

    Reply
    • Hi cindy I’m having the same it’s so overwhelming at times I feel for you cuz as it’s so real and your thoughts rule your day

  2. Hi, came across your page while try I ng to find what kind of counselor I need to be looking for. I’m stressing over latest heart diagnosis plus other issues, plus family issues, etc..
    Realized it’s time to seek help to talk these issues out but not sure who may specialize with health issues along with everyday stuff.
    Thanks for any help you can help me with to guide me in the right direction.

    Reply
  3. I’m constantly thinking I have or going to get an illness I’m constantly on DR GOOGLE I’m fed up I know it’s irrational I know it’s silly but it’s like an addiction

    Reply
  4. This is worst thing anyone can experience.. like slowly hurting yourself !!!
    But, Mindfulness is the best therapy. Pl pl connect with your real form ..your soul. Believe in your soul…your soul is your identity , not the body and believe that you are the master of your soul. Not to mention … Yoga & Meditation are gonna help you achieve this. God bless !

    Reply
    • Every time I get labs done, something in my labs seems elevated or too low. I start googling causes, symptoms and of course, the worse of the worse always appear on google. Then I start to worry, google even more, worry more, trying to connect one symptom to another….. its a vicious cycle. I’m embarrassed to tell my family already what I feel, as they now say I’m a hypochondriac… (maybe true). The truth is, I’m afraid of dying, I’m afraid of not being here tomorrow to care for my family. For the past 6 months I have been saving as much money as possible in case something should happen to me, I can leave each of my kids a little something.

    • Hi iv been feeling the same something is wrong with me I have had blood tests endoscopy CT scan urine sample stool sample all came back negative but I’m still getting palpitations feeling dizy and weak because I think iv got the big c

  5. I was feeling a weird kind of discomfort in my vaginal area.. I went to the doctors and she said its just labia infection, she recommended some medicines, even though I don’t have any pain or discomfort now, I guess I’m forcing myself to believe that its not cured yet, I keep pressing and checking if its alright because Im anxious and I think thats why its sometimes hurts but I feel like I have serious health issues my doctor does’nt knows… I think I’ve health anxiety because the symptoms matches but I can’t reduce it.. Thank you for the tips…

    Reply
  6. Wow wow what comments I have exactly the same problem .
    Health anxiety I worry about everything about my body have done so for years.
    Used to read the medical book and convinced myself I had it all

    Reply
  7. I have had gi issues on and off for years. Now have family hx of colon ca. When issues last more then couple weeks im convinced i have colon ca. Now ive googled and am convinced i have ovarian ca. . I have been trying to eat better and of course have had the issues so lost a few pounds which now im especially convinced of ovarian even though i feel nothing. My dr tells me i can gave a cat scan if I want but shes not concerned. I dont want to because they will tell me i have cancer…im so upset all the time to where now im making symptoms worse

    Reply
    • I am exactly experiencing the same thing. How are you coping with all this, i go to the dr on Monday. What type of GI issues are you having ? How are you feeling now?

  8. I have had severe health anxiety my entire life, ever since I was a little kid. My family always called me a hypochondriac and that it was “all in my head” and would get so mad at me whenever I would tell them about a health concern I had or ask if they would take me to the hospital. I have gotten a bit better over the last couple years by just managing my general anxiety, but reading these comments have helped me to realize I am not alone in this struggle. And I just want to say to anyone out there struggling with health anxiety; you’re not alone, and please know that there is hope, you can recover and heal from this awful anxiety.

    Reply
  9. I never used to bother at all about my health until one day I had abnormal bleeding and picked up a medical book (no Google back then ) and that was it suddenly I had bowel cancer or so I convinced myself, it turned out to be piles and consequently after that every symptom of illness I had I turned to the medical book ,and guess what I had every cancer going, my husband even remarked that he was surprised I hadn’t got prostate cancer yet !! But even now 30 years later I am still at it , but now I have Dr Google which predicts my imminent death from my symptoms I put in nearly every time , but I’m still here . I wonder , why do we do this ? If I have a gland up I’ve got leukemia if I have stomach pain I have pancreatic cancer if my ribs hurt it’s spread to my bones why oh why do I torment myself with these thoughts and info from the internet because of all the many times I have been ill there has always been a recovery for me. yes I do have health issues but I make them worse by overthinking each time. I am going to stop this and if I am one day facing a bad illness I will learn to live with it because this has ruined some of my life and I’m fed up with it but glad to know I’m not alone x

    Reply
    • Wow this sounds like me 💯.. so nice to know I am not the only one .. trouble is my worry then causes me to have physical symptoms like burning sensations and wind in my tummy ..
      I did have early breast cancer don’t need any treatment but now every little thing I feel I now think the what ifs.. it’s honestly not nice at all .. negative energy it’s awful

    • This is so me.. I have stopped living life and its been 2 years I have been so consumed with worries.. I feel tired and defeated
      I can’t remember the last time I was happy

  10. I just ran across this article today. 8 years ago I was dx with colon cancer, 7 years ago I was dx with breast cancer, both times they got clear margins and maintenance chemo. Also I was dx as type 2 diabetic in 2017. I have a Dr.s appt on Monday for my yearly physical and I have been having stomach issues since Thursday and I have convinced myself that the cancer is back. I am a ball of nerves and cannot shake it. I do not know what to do, I can’t talk to my husband cause he blows it off. I know my blood pressure is sky high, and yes, I am on medication for high blood pressure. I pray all the time for God to take my issues, but. I tend to pick them back up and more. I honestly feel lost and I do not know how to stop it. If you get this, any help/tips would be great. To all of you that have commented, you’re not alone and God has each of us. God knows the plan for all of us and I know nothing I can do will/can change that. Please help. God bless you all.

    Reply
  11. It’s a horrible thing. I recently got diagnosed with fatty liver disease and even though it is common and can reverse itself with diet and exercise I’m still so concerned my case is the worst and I’m dying. I know I need to be proactive and do my part to get healthy but I have been reading the internet ever since. It’s nothing new I have done it since the beginning of internet and well before that. It’s exhausting and I can’t stand myself sometimes.

    Reply
  12. My anxiety is making me sick. Constantly running to doctors and sitting on google looking up every symptom I am experiencing is so draining. I started having difficulty swallowing recently. Idk what I have. I am freaking out. I started to choke and thought I was going to die. I need help. I feel like going to doctors is making me worse. Please God help me

    Reply

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