How to Overcome Health Anxiety
It’s not unusual to be concerned about your health when you are sick. You want to live a long and healthy life, so if you become ill, you can’t help but worry. You probably undergo medical treatment to get better and then might make some changes to safeguard your health. For instance, if you come down with the flu, your handwashing behaviors might improve. If you suffer a heart attack, you’d likely change your diet and start exercising.
Sometimes, though, you can cross the line that separates concern and anxiety. When that happens, worrying about your health can take over your entire life. You obsess about your symptoms, whether real or perceived. You might believe that you have a severe illness or will come down with one soon.
Health anxiety is all-encompassing and makes it hard to enjoy your life. Fortunately, you can overcome it with journaling and other strategies.
First, take a moment to learn more about health anxiety disorders. Then go over some strategies that can help you overcome the condition.
Types of Health Anxiety Disorders
In the past, the mental health community used the term “hypochondriasis” for health anxiety disorder. That changed with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5), which replaced hypochondriasis with somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder (Vlasios Brakoulias, n.d.). Let’s take a closer look at both diseases.
Somatic Symptom Disorder
Approximately 5-7 percent of the adult population suffers from somatic symptom disorder (Cleveland Clinic, 2018). People with this condition have persistent health ailments, such as aches and pains. These symptoms disrupt their daily lives. Those with the condition are preoccupied and anxious about their symptoms, making it hard to function. Sometimes, the symptoms are related to an actual diagnosis, but often, they are not. However, people genuinely experience the physical symptoms and believe they are ill, even if their providers cannot find anything wrong with them.
What Causes Somatic Symptom Disorder?
Women are 10 times more likely to have the disorder, but it can affect men as well. If you have somatic symptom disorder, it could be due to childhood sexual or physical abuse. You also might have suffered emotional development issues in a child or have excessive anxiety about your bodily processes. A low pain threshold is also possible.
Illness Anxiety Disorder
It’s estimated that 1.3 to 10 percent of the general population suffers from illness anxiety disorder (Bethany Shikatani (née Gee), 2015). Those who have this condition are worried about developing a serious medical problem. People who have this condition normally behave in one of two ways.
Some avoid going to the doctor or checking for medical issues, so they don’t get any bad news. They believe that not knowing is better than finding out and dealing with the condition. Of course, this makes the anxiety worse.
Others obsessively check for symptoms. For instance, they might look at their skin daily, checking for signs of skin cancer, or they might perform breast exams to the point of obsession. The symptom checks often become a part of a daily routine. Constantly checking for symptoms increases anxiety levels as well.
What Causes Illness Anxiety Disorder?
Researches have yet to pinpoint the exact cause or causes of illness anxiety disorder. However, risk factors make people more likely to develop this condition (Cleveland Clinic, 2015).
Going through a stressful event is one such risk factor. For instance, if you lose your job or someone you love passes away, you might find yourself worrying about your health more than usual.
You are also at risk if you experience a symptom that seems dangerous, such as memory issues or fatigue. Your first thought might be that something must seriously be wrong, even if the actual cause is benign.
If you suffered emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, you’re also more likely to develop this condition. A history of childhood illness or a mental health disorder as an adult also increases your likelihood of suffering from an illness anxiety disorder.
Symptoms of Health Anxiety
Are you unsure if you have health anxiety? Health anxiety has some telltale symptoms (Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 2020). If you have one or more of these signs, you likely suffer from health anxiety.
First, do you worry that you might be sick, but you don’t have any symptoms? That’s your anxiety creeping up.
Do you still worry that you’re sick after a doctor assures you that you aren’t? The doctor might even show you test results that prove you’re in the clear, but you can’t stop worrying. Again, that’s a sign of health anxiety.
What happens if you read a news story about a disease or illness? Do you automatically think that you have it or will get it? Do you worry about it day and night? That’s a clear symptom of health anxiety.
Do you spend lots of time online, looking up health information? You do that because you’re suffering from health anxiety, and your online research only makes it worse.
Finally, does your anxiety get in the way of your life? Has it started to interfere with your family, social events, hobbies, and life in general? If so, you have health anxiety, and it’s time to use some strategies to overcome it.
Why Does Health Anxiety Persist?
When you look at health anxiety symptoms, you can’t help but wonder why the condition persists, even when you get assurances from a medical professional that you aren’t sick. You will likely experience temporary relief after receiving those reassurances, but then, the anxiety will come back with a vengeance. You will begin to worry about your health again and then go back through the cycle. Unless you break the cycle, you will continue to repeat this behavior indefinitely. (Ken Goodman, 2020).
To understand this, think of your health anxiety as a car alarm. Car alarms don’t just go off when someone tries to break into a vehicle. Alarms can also go off when the wind blows too heavily, or someone walks too close. These are false alarms.
Your body has its alarm system to let you know when you need help. The system interprets bodily sensations and discomfort, and sometimes, it misinterprets them as dangerous medical conditions. It’s easy to confuse a normal change such as a loss in muscle tone or visual acuity as a significant crisis. The more often this happens, the more you reinforce the cycle. Soon, even minor symptoms can cause your anxiety to go into overdrive.
You also might have medical anxiety because you have specific assumptions about medical conditions. For example, if heart disease runs in the family, you might be overly sensitive to sensations in your chest because you think it’s only a matter of time before you’re diagnosed. You might look at each day as one day closer to your diagnosis, so the anxiety continues to build.
Ways to Overcome Health Anxiety
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed if you’re dealing with health anxiety. However, you can overcome it by incorporating some strategies. Keep in mind that real change takes time. It might take weeks for you to notice significant improvement. Eventually, though, you can put your health anxiety behind you.
Alleviate Anxiety With Daily Journaling
You can start the path to recovery through journaling. First, keeping a journal will help you track your triggers and symptoms (University of Rochester Medical Center, n.d.). Tracking can give you critical insights into your condition. You can also identify negative thoughts and behaviors and prioritize your concerns.
You can also use it to lessen the intensity of your negative thoughts and emotions. Writing them down causes the feelings to have less power over you. It provides a cathartic release, putting you back in control.
Journaling also gives you a safe space to challenge your thoughts. You can ask yourself why you think a certain way. When you explore your thoughts, you can remove some of the power your anxiety has over you. This will help you think more critically and rationally.
Journaling is also an excellent tool to track your progress. Challenge yourself to write for 21 days in a row. At the end of the 21-day journal challenge, go back and read your entries. You’ll get to see how far you’ve come in a mere three weeks. That will provide additional motivation so you can continue to do the work to overcome your condition.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
If you have health anxiety, undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy could help. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a psychological treatment for alleviating anxiety, depression, and other disorders (American Psychological Association, 2017). Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of CBT studies for health anxiety and discovered it is more effective than other psychological therapies and medication (Kate Cooper, 2017).
CBT therapy is based on the principles that problems are caused by unhelpful or faulty thinking and learned behavior patterns. By learning better ways to cope, people can relieve their symptoms. Then they will live better lives.
If you go to a psychotherapist who specializes in CBT therapy, he or she will help you learn to recognize your distortions in thinking that cause health anxiety. You will then discover how to reevaluate your way of thinking, so you no longer have those distortions. You will also learn more about your behavior and develop problem-solving skills. Your therapist will help you face your fears, which will make you stronger.
If you decide to go this route, understand that not all therapists practice cognitive behavioral therapy. Do your research to find a therapist who specializes in CBT. Fortunately, if you use a therapist search tool such as Psychology Today, you can view each therapist’s treatment approach. Just click on the name and scroll down to find the “Treatment Approach” on the page’s right-hand side. Then, once you find a therapist, you can begin treatment.
Engage in Mindfulness Meditation
If you suffer from health anxiety, you worry about the future. You are afraid of getting a severe medical condition, and that fear prevents you from enjoying life. You can begin to overcome that fear by focusing on the present instead of worrying about the future. This is easy to accomplish through mindful meditation.
Mindfulness is the opposite of anxiousness. While anxiety is about the future, mindfulness brings you back to the here and now. This calms your anxious mind and helps you appreciate the current moment.
Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety and stress. One such study followed 93 people diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (Elizabeth A. Hoge, 2014). Those who participated in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program reported lower levels of anxiety.
Initially, it might be difficult for you to quiet your thoughts and meditate mindfully. Because of that, begin with guided meditations. You can download an application such as the Insight Timer that has different guided mindfulness meditations. Once you download the app, find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed. Then go through the meditation.
Eventually, you’ll be able to meditate mindfully without anyone guiding you. You will find it much easier to remove intrusive thoughts and focus on the here and now.
With practice, you’ll get better at being mindful, even when you aren’t meditating. For example, you might feel a spike of health anxiety while you’re at work. You can then use a mindfulness tool you learned while meditating to bring your mind and body back to the present. That will help you alleviate anxiety.
Reduce Anxiety With Breathing Exercises
Did you know that you take around 17,280 to 23,040 breaths a day (Brown, 2014)? You probably only notice a few of those breaths, if that. Each time you breathe, though, you have an opportunity to alleviate stress by engaging in some breathing exercises. Adding breathing exercises into your daily routine can help you alleviate health anxiety, stress, and panic (National Health Service, 2018).
You can sit, stand, or lie down, but you need to be comfortable doing these exercises. Then take a deep breath through your nose all the way down into your stomach. Don’t force it, but fill up your belly. If you want, you can place your hands on your stomach to feel it as it fills like a balloon. If possible, breathe in for five seconds. However, you might have to work up to that. Then exhale gently through your mouth. Count to five while breathing out and then repeat the process. Do this for three to five minutes. When you finish, you should feel much calmer.
Breathing is a great tool to have at your disposal since you can do it anywhere and at any time. If you feel stressed, you can do this controlled breathing exercise to calm down. It will bring you back to the present and help you control your anxiety.
Stop Using the Internet to Self-diagnose
Have you noticed how instances of health anxiety have increased in the last several decades? It’s because of the internet. Now, instead of calling a doctor to get an expert opinion, people pop their symptoms into Google and self-diagnose themselves. Unfortunately, many ailments share the same symptoms, so you might type symptoms for something minor and think you have cancer.
Researchers have actually coined a term for this. It’s called cyberchondria because of the link between health anxiety and online searches. Studies have shown that anxiety gets worse after online searches, so you definitely want to stop doing this.
In one study, researchers collected data from 731 volunteers who had searched for symptoms online (E. R. Doherty-Torstrick, 2016). The researchers used the Whiteley Index to determine the severity of health anxiety. They used the Sheehan Disability Scale to determine functional impairment, and a modified version of the Clinician’s Global Impairment Scale to analyze distress recall during and after conducting the online search.
The researchers determined that people who already had high illness anxiety before looking up their symptoms felt worse afterward. Those with low illness anxiety actually felt better after looking up their symptoms. The researchers determined that people with moderate to high levels of illness anxiety should not search for symptoms since it can be detrimental to their health.
This is just one of the numerous studies that encourage people to avoid checking symptoms online. You are feeding your anxiety when you do this, and it could have serious health consequences.
Engage in an Exercise Routine
If you went to a mental health professional for your health anxiety, he or she would probably ask about your exercise routine. It’s not because your therapist is concerned about your waistline. Instead, it’s because exercising can improve your mental health and reduce health anxiety.
Study after study has shown that exercise can improve your overall mental health while reducing your anxiety and stress. You don’t even have to become a gym rat to get the benefits. Psychologists have determined that a 10-minute walk can provide the same anxiety-busting benefits as a 45-minute workout (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d.).
Exercise provides another benefit that’s not as easy to measure, but it helps with health anxiety. When you exercise, you feel like you’re proactive about your health. You are doing all you can to live a healthy life, and that feeling is empowering. It’s easier to feel in control when you maintain an exercise routine.
Take a 20 Minute Break
When you have health anxiety, it’s easy to get lost in obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Those thoughts can be overwhelming to the point that you begin to panic. Newark psychologist Dr. Mary Kennedy recommends setting a timer for 20 minutes when you feel anxious about your health (Rini, 2016). You can do anything you want during the 20 minutes with one exception. Don’t think about your health. Consider using the 20 minutes to enjoy a hobby, such as reading a book. When the 20 minutes are up, you’ll feel so much better. That small mental break will put you in a better headspace.
Reduce Avoidant Behaviors
Does your health anxiety cause you to avoid things? Maybe you avoid going to the doctor because you don’t want to find out if you have a condition. You might avoid talking about your feared condition because you’re afraid that will make your anxiety worse. Maybe you even avoid exercising because you don’t want your heart rate to speed up.
Unfortunately, avoidance can feed your anxiety. (Margarita Tartakovsky, 2018). Your brain tells you that you need to avoid these things because you’re anxious, but you just become more anxious in the process. You have the power to overcome this by facing your fears. This takes practice, so engage in avoidance-reducing behaviors three or four times a week until it becomes second nature.
Do you have a fear of hospitals? Hang out in a lobby or waiting area to reduce the anxiety. You can also schedule a follow up with your doctor or talk about your medical fears. These are just some ways you can face your fears. If you also take part in cognitive behavioral therapy, your therapist will help you with avoidance-reducing behaviors as well.
Don’t Seek Constant Reassurance
When your health anxiety kicks in, you immediately want to seek reassurance. You want to have tests run or have a family member tell you you’ll be OK. That reassurance will help you feel better for a short while, but it won’t last. Your brain will begin to rely on that reassurance, which will make you more anxious (Cosslett, 2020).
You can break the cycle by avoiding seeking reassurance. Much like reducing avoidance, you can’t accomplish this all at once. You have to ease into it. Use your journal to find out how often you seek reassurance. Then slowly cut down the number of times you seek it each day or week. Continue to chart your progress and record your anxiety levels. You should notice that your anxiety will eventually drop when you cut down the number of times you seek reassurance. Then you will finally get to the point where you don’t seek reassurance at all. That’s when you’ll know you’ve finally broken the cycle.
Stop Engaging in Behaviors That Put Your Health at Risk
You can reduce your health anxiety by avoiding behaviors that put you at risk. For instance, if you drink alcohol, you might worry about high blood pressure, liver damage, and other issues. When you stop drinking, you’ll feel less anxious. The same is true for smoking, overeating, and other dangerous behaviors. By taking control of your health, you’ll feel empowered and less anxious.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
If you suffer from health anxiety, you might lie awake at night, worrying about different symptoms and conditions. Then you don’t get restorative sleep, which makes you even more anxious (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, n.d.). When you’re overly tired, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think rationally. That, in turn, can make you worry even more about your health.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to sleep more soundly. First, sleep needs to be a priority in your life. You should set aside a block of time that’s just for sleep. That block should be 7-9 hours long and at the same time each night. That’s true, even during the weekends. Sticking to a schedule will make it much easier to sleep.
You should also create a bedtime routine. Don’t eat or drink stimulants such as coffee or chocolate and avoid cigarettes and alcohol. Turn off the TV and your phone and focus on relaxing things, such as meditating or reading a book.
Make sure your bedroom is ideal for a good night’s sleep, as well. It should be quiet, cool, and dark, and it should only be used as a bedroom. Don’t work in your bedroom or watch TV. Instead, only go into the bedroom when you are ready to go to sleep.
When you are ready to go to bed, lie down. If 15 minutes pass and you aren’t asleep, go into another room. Engage in a relaxing activity and then go back into the bedroom when you are ready to try again.
If these tips don’t help you get a good night’s sleep, schedule an appointment with a doctor. You might need sleeping medication for a bit while you get your anxiety under control. Then, when you start getting enough rest, your doctor can reevaluate your medication needs.
Medications can help with health anxiety, but you have to be careful due to the side effects (Gray, 2018). It’s not unusual for people with health anxiety to pore over the list of side effects when taking a new medication. That, of course, can increase their anxiety.
However, some people have been put on anxiety medications with virtually no side effects, leading to an improvement. If you decide to try medication, consider going to a psychiatrist instead of a general practitioner. You can then discuss your fears of side effects, and your doctor can help you find something you’re likely to tolerate.
Imagine Talking to a Friend
Let’s say that you have a sore throat, and you are sure it’s throat cancer. Imagine a friend coming to you with that same concern. You probably wouldn’t immediately think that it is throat cancer. Instead, you’d probably say that it’s likely allergies or a cold, and it will go away soon.
Why is your self-talk so different from the way you converse with friends? It’s because people are generally more rational and less emotional when dealing with someone else’s concerns and worries (Fortenbury, 2020). Because of that, it’s useful to pretend you’re discussing your friend’s worries whenever you experience health anxiety. Think about what you would tell a friend with the same concerns. This simple exercise can ground you in reality and alleviate your anxiety. Over time, this will turn into a habit, making it much easier to control your anxiety.
Talk to Yourself in the Third Person
Talking to yourself in the third person can also help you when you feel anxious about your health. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University discovered that third-person self-talk allows people to control stressful emotions (Michigan State University, 2017).
According to the researchers, referring to yourself in the third person causes you to think of yourself in the same way you think of others. For example, assume that you are worried that you are going to have a heart attack. You could ask yourself, “Joe, why are you worried about having a heart attack. You’ve never had any heart problems.”
When you do this, it will be easier for you to consider your thoughts rationally. That, in turn, will reduce your anxiety level.
Stick With a Doctor
Doctor shopping is common for people who suffer from health anxiety (Haupt, 2012). When one doctor doesn’t find a condition, people often move to the next one and continue the process. When you doctor shop, you will undergo unnecessary tests and increase the risk of receiving different diagnoses. That will compound your stress and confusion.
Instead of putting yourself through this, find a doctor that you trust and stick to that person. When you do find a doctor you trust, tell him or her about your concerns. That is a critical step in forming a good relationship with your healthcare provider.
Start a New Hobby
Hobbies are an excellent way to make use of your free time. Depending on the hobbies you select, they can also reduce your anxiety (Schild, 2020).
Yoga is one example of a hobby that can help you alleviate health anxiety. Along with improving your physical health, yoga relieves stress and improves your emotional well-being (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, n.d.). You can join a yoga class or find a video online and do it from the comfort of home. Either way, you can enjoy the benefits.
You can also reduce your anxiety by taking up baking. This can be a comforting activity, whether you are sorting your ingredients, mixing them up, or taking the baked goods out of the oven. If you decide to take up baking, you do need to be careful about overindulging. You can create a food journal to help you stay within the appropriate calorie range while enjoying this hobby.
Then there’s gardening. Whether you choose an indoor or outdoor garden, gardening can make you feel calm and enhance your sense of well-being.
Adult coloring books are another way to reduce your stress levels. Preliminary research shows that adult coloring can reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms (Jayde A. M Flett, 2017). Buy some adult coloring books and use them each day. Chart your progress in your journal so you can see if this strategy works for you.
These are a few examples of hobbies that reduce stress, but there are more. The key is to find something that will take your mind off your health and allow you to relax.
Join a Support Group
Joining a support group is an excellent strategy for overcoming health anxiety. First, you will realize that you aren’t alone when you join a support group with others suffering from the same condition. You would be surprised by the number of people who talked about how they felt like they were the only person suffering from health anxiety before they joined a support group. After the first meeting, they realized that countless others have the same issue, making them feel better.
The benefits go beyond realizing you aren’t alone, though. When you join a support group, you will have a safe place to express your feelings. The group members will listen to you without judgment as you talk about your feelings. Getting your thoughts and feelings out there can reduce the intensity and leave you feeling empowered.
You’ll also learn some tips and tools to use when you attend support group meetings. Some people in the group will be further along in their recovery and tell you what worked for them. You can try different strategies to find something that works for you.
You will even get the chance to help others when you join a support group. You will eventually become a success story, and then you can share your favorite strategies with others.
Avoid TV Shows and Movies Focused on Diseases
TV shows and movies that are focused on diseases seem to be all the rage these days. Millions of people tune in to see the latest medical drama or film. While these TV shows and movies can be entertaining, they can also trigger health anxiety. For example, if you watch a medical drama where someone has breast cancer, it could cause you to become preoccupied with your cancer risk. You might compulsively check for lumps and find issues that aren’t actually there. You can avoid this by tuning into TV shows or movies that don’t have anything to do with medical conditions.
Start the Journey Toward Recovery Today
You can take control and overcome health anxiety by following these tips. Begin by starting your recovery journal. Be open when writing in your journal and chart your progress. Then, incorporate other strategies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and better sleep hygiene. The more techniques you use, the easier it will be for you to overcome your anxiety.
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