Many of us worry about our health from time to time and most of us have probably internet-searched a symptom once or twice. But when we have health anxiety, our worries and anxieties around our health can have a significant impact on our life.
WHAT IS HEALTH ANXIETY?
When we live with health anxiety, we often excessively worry about our health. We might worry about becoming unwell, or have serious concerns that we’re ill. Often, we’ll be hyper-aware of different feelings in our body and may perceive some expected bodily functions as a symptom of a serious illness. It’s not just our own health we worry about, either. We could be excessively worried about the health of our loved ones, too.
WHAT CAN CAUSE HEALTH ANXIETY?
Health anxiety doesn’t usually stem from one, isolated, cause. For health anxiety to occur, we’ll usually have a combination of things that make us vulnerable, act as a trigger(s), and keep our anxieties going.
Our genetics, life experiences, family history, personal health history, thinking styles and personality can all affect our likelihood of developing health anxiety. Each of these things could contain things that make us vulnerable to health anxiety. For example, our Dad might have had a phobia of germs or we might be someone who tends to catastrophise.
Sometimes health anxiety will be triggered by a specific event. For example, we might experience a serious illness. Or one of our close friends or family members could have a tough time with their health. Some of us might go through a stressful period, experience physical symptoms of stress, and interpret them as signs that something is seriously wrong with us (causing us to become even more stressed and then experience even more symptoms).
We might watch a TV programme, or read an article online that sticks with us and causes any general worries we have around health to tip over into anxiety.
Keeping things to ourselves, avoiding stuff that makes us anxious, falling into scroll-holes of information, becoming hyper-aware of any and all bodily sensations and misinterpreting these sensations can all keep our health anxiety going.
SYMPTOMS OF HEALTH ANXIETY
- Constantly and excessively worrying about our health or the health of our loved ones.
- Misinterpreting expected bodily sensations as a sign of serious illness.
- Constantly checking different aspects of our health.
- Regularly seeking reassurance from medical professionals or loved ones about aspects of our health.
- Having a belief that we are seriously unwell, despite medical tests indicating otherwise.
- Avoiding the doctor at times when we really should go and see them, because we’re worried that they’ll diagnose us with a serious illness.
- Preoccupation with thoughts about health.
- Doing regular body scans, and regularly checking our body for any signs that we might be unwell.
- Reading or watching lots and lots of information around general health or specific illness(es), or avoiding them altogether.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HEALTH ANXIETY AND BEING HEALTH CONSCIOUS
We all have times when we have symptoms that we should see a doctor about. It’s generally a good thing to be aware of our personal ‘normal’ so that we pick up anything outside of it quite quickly.
But for some of us, these genuine worries and concerns reach a point where they’d be described as excessive. They begin to interfere with our life. Anxieties about our health preoccupy us, making it hard to have conversations or concentrate on what we’re doing. They might start to distress us and for some of us, become almost constant, to the point where there’s little let-up.
HOW IT FEELS TO LIVE WITH HEALTH ANXIETY
Health anxiety can be incredibly distressing and upsetting. For some of us, the level of distress we feel is similar to receiving a new terminal diagnosis every time we feel an ache or pain.
Something that can make it even more distressing and frustrating is that others might not share our opinion of how serious our symptoms are. Friends and family may become dismissive or get fed up with us. They could say flippant things like ‘don’t worry about it’ (…if only!). They might have been understanding when we first developed health anxiety, but quickly lose patience with us.
We could feel as though doctors don’t believe us, either, which only adds to our distress. Sometimes, medics do tests and investigations to follow up on a diagnosis that we’re convinced have. But even if all the results are absolutely fine, we could still believe that there’s something seriously wrong with us.
People might suggest that we ask for some psychological help. This could cause us to feel angry, or exasperated because we don’t think there’s anything wrong with our mind. We think there’s something wrong with our body and nobody is taking it seriously.
All of this can lead to us feeling isolated and misunderstood. It can be lonely. We’re anxious, worried, upset, stressed, frustrated, and scared about the symptoms and feelings we have. But nobody seems to want to know. It can feel like people are telling us that our feelings aren’t real, rather than supporting us. But the feelings we have are very real to us.
HOW HEALTH ANXIETY CAN AFFECT OUR LIFE
Health anxiety can affect all areas of our life.
Being preoccupied with worry and fear can affect our ability to concentrate, engage with other people, follow instructions, think things through, and focus on tasks that we need to do.
We might find that the quality of our work deteriorates. Our timekeeping might start to falter. We could find that we’re taking an increasing number of sick days. Our attention to detail, concentration, creativity, flexibility, and reliability can all fall down. It can impact our job prospects.
Some of us might spend money on all sorts of equipment from thermometers to blood sugar monitors and more. We might pay for private healthcare in the belief that we’ll get different results compared to visiting our NHS doctor. Some of us spend lots of money on things that we believe will help us to stay well. This could include vitamins, drinks, shakes, beetroot juice, or certain foods. We might be able to afford these things, or we might feel compelled to buy them despite not having the money we need, plunging ourselves into debt.
Often, we’ll either withdraw from family and friends or regularly seek reassurance from them. This might start off being every so often and increase over time. It can place an immense strain on our relationships.
We might feel like medical professionals stop taking us seriously. Be it our GP, local A&E department, or someone else. Alternatively, we might have such a fear about doctors finding something seriously wrong with us that we don’t go and see them when we should. Both of these scenarios could mean that we don’t get the treatment we need.
Mental health stigma is, unfortunately, all too common. It occurs amongst medical professionals as well as the general public.
We might feel that we’re being stigmatised for frequently attending A&E or our GP surgery. Terms like ‘frequent flyer’ hang over us, filling us with a sense of shame that we don’t deserve.
People might think that we’re making stuff up or trying to waste other people’s time. But we’re not. We’re genuinely scared and worried that there is something wrong with us, or with someone we love.
SELF HELP FOR HEALTH ANXIETY
Various things can help with health anxiety. Different things work for different people so we might need to try a couple of things before we find those that work for us.
One of the first things we could do is to unfollow social media accounts and unsubscribe from emails that we know trigger our anxiety. This puts us back in control of which information we read and receive, and when we see it.
We might not be at a point where we feel able to stop researching health-related things altogether. But we could look at sticking to reliable sources and reducing how much time we spend on it. By reliable sources, we mean using sites like the NHS website rather than articles like ‘10 skin conditions you didn’t know you had’. When reducing the time we spend reading health-related content, noting the time we currently spend information-hunting is a good starting point. From there, we can reduce it slowly, little-by-little. For example, we could reduce it by 5 minutes every day, setting timers to remind us to stop when our time’s up.
When we first begin to explore help for health anxiety, self-help can be a good starting point, because there’s no waiting list for it. There are lots of different worksheets online that we could work through them to start to explore some of our difficulties. Friends or family members might be happy to look at them with us, which could offer an outside perspective.
If we need a little more support, our GP is usually our first port of call. If we don’t want to visit our then it might be possible to contact our local mental health team.
Some of the things that a therapist might work through with us include behaviour experiments, exposure therapy, ‘Theory A and Theory B’, talking therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and gaining a better understanding of our thinking styles. These things can be scary, but we usually build up to them in a slow, safe, supportive way.
Professionals that we see should be able to advise us on any further support that we might need, too, including things like medication or reaching out to other services.
THERE IS HOPE
When we live with health anxiety, there are times when we can be filled with despair and hopelessness. It can feel as though we’re trapped. Nobody seems to believe us, we can’t work out which symptoms are real and which aren’t, and there’s no way out. We might not be able to picture a day when we’re free of constant worries.
Although recovery is never linear, there is hope. With the right help and support, we can get to a place where our anxiety reduces and it feels easier to get through each day again.
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