Health Anxiety

Everyone worries about their health on the odd occasion, but when those worries persist with no evidence for concern, and the fear of illness becomes so great that it affects your day to day living it’s possible you might have health/illness anxiety. You might be surprised just how common this condition is. An estimated one in four doctor’s appointments are the result of health/illness anxiety/phobia

People who have illness/health phobia are looking constantly for reassurance from their doctor or the accident and emergency staff at the local hospital and they tend to bombard personal friends and family with references as to how awful they are feeling.  Reassurance is transient and even x-rays, scans and other investigations will not convince them that nothing is amiss.  They are sure that somewhere along the line something has been overlooked and possibly a mistake has been made in their particular case.  It is all gloom and doom in their eyes.

Someone with health anxiety will continually search for symptoms, quite often ‘Googling’ these on the internet and concluding that a minor symptom is really a sign of a serious illness. This can then set off a vicious circle of more symptoms caused by the anxiety and stress of what might be wrong. The certainty that your headache is brain cancer, your chest pain is a heart attack or you have somehow caught HIV returns shortly afterwards and the pattern continues once more.

As we are all individual, this condition varies from person to person. Some might seek reassurance from friends and family or desire medical examinations to rule out possible illnesses even including the odd trip to A&E. Others on the other-hand might avoid medical visits completely, just in case something is really wrong, which can actually make things a lot worse as the presumed illness is not officially ruled out.

Then there are the real physical signs that they can look at and wonder and worry about.  “What is that little spot on my leg?  It has been there for ages and hasn’t altered.  I wonder if it is cancerous.”   “ Oh my goodness, my partner has a mark on his penis.  Is it a sign of venereal disease or AIDS?  I can’t cope, I think I am going mad.”  “I keep getting headaches all the time, that’s not normal, is it?  What if it’s a brain tumour? Will I die?

These kinds of thoughts are normal and most people at some point worry about a symptom that to them is unusual but they deal with it by seeing their G.P. or going to the appropriate diagnostic clinic.  Others who are suffering from anxiety will be fearful and restless.  They become constantly aware of their bodies and how they are functioning.  “My lips look very blue this morning and my heart seems to be racing, I hope I’m not going to have a heart attack.”  The ever-present anxiety and resulting tension can produce other symptoms such as pains in the stomach; contractions of the intestines too, are not uncommon.  All this reinforces the negative thinking and the terror of the imagined consequences.

How do we deal with these worries?  We have to start looking at the problem logically.  If we have been told that all is well but just can’t accept the fact, then we must look at the part we are playing in prolonging our lack of belief.  Are we exaggerating?  The answer to this is ‘More than likely.’ Are we forever thinking ‘What if this symptom gets worse and the doctor still tells me there is nothing to worry about?’  What shall I do then?

It might be an idea to write down the most horrendous outcome that you can think of and start to question the probabilities of it happening. After making a list, go through it methodically and answer each question.  I think you will find that most of your replies could be regarded as highly imaginative, not a true representation of the facts or reality.

Let us take headaches as an example.  You have had them frequently, so much so that you have been to see your G.P.  He/she has tried to explain to you that it is not surprising that you have headaches because you are anxious and perhaps in a difficult situation at home or at work.  “You must try and relax more.” he/she might say.  They may even offer some form of medication, which may or may not help.  After a week of wondering whether your headaches will be cured you realise that, unfortunately, they are still a daily occurrence.  Now what, you begin to get more worried so back to the G.P. you go.  This time you are so uptight and so insistent that something must be radically wrong, that to make absolutely sure, the doctor arranges a consultation and X-ray at the hospital.  Instead of thinking that you will be in good hands and will get a definite diagnosis, you start to think that you must be really ill.  You forget that it was you that insisted that there was unquestionably something wrong and to give reassurance your doctor obliged you by arranging the visit to the consultant.  You begin to imagine that you are being sent there because the doctor is unsure of what is causing your headaches.  At this stage you are so tense isn’t it likely that you are actually exacerbating the problem by your exaggerated and negative thinking?

Go through your list again and this time, take each statement that you have made and examine it thoroughly.  Isn’t it true that nearly everyone in the world has a headache at some point?  They don’t all die from a brain tumour, do they?  Even if the headaches are very, very bad and the sufferer has been sent for an examination, the diagnosis of a brain tumour is relatively rare considering the vast numbers of the population.  Try to undermine all your negative thoughts with facts NOT imagined possibilities.  You are suffering from anxiety and the headaches are caused by tension.  These will disappear as you apply your relaxation techniques and you become less introspective.

Change your negative thoughts to positive ones as you become more relaxed and in control of your situation and start to enjoy your life again.

An important thing to realise is, that it is not the symptoms you are experiencing that is the problem here, it is how you react to the symptoms that are the problem. For example, if you respond to a headache with worrying about brain cancer, checking for other symptoms or searching for reassurance then you are escalating the issue out of control, as the more you focus on these bodily sensations, the more they are amplified. So retraining the brain is the answer. This will not only help reduce the amount you focus on symptoms but also lower anxiety levels in general. You need to accept that worrying has become a habit for you. There was a time in the past when you didn’t worry. Not every bodily sensation you had was the start of an incurable illness. So worrying about your health and how you feel is something you have learnt to do and it has now become something you do on auto-pilot.

There are many things you do every day on auto-pilot, like getting out of bed, you don’t lay there thinking, now to get up I need to open my eyes then swing my legs out of bed then push myself to stand up….’ You simply just get up automatically without thinking. But imagine you had a broken leg, now this would block you from getting up on auto-pilot. Firstly you would have to shift about a bit, then work out how to get the broken leg out of the bed the best way etc. This would break the habit of getting out of bed in your usual way, you would have to do it differently.

So now let’s do the same with your worries. Here you are worrying away about your sore throat or the numbness in your feet, your mind is on autopilot and all those negative thoughts are whirring around in your head, ‘what if I’m dying’ or ‘I must have Alzheimer’s’. What you need to do is block the way you habitually think, retrain the brain, and instead of letting your mind wander off, take control and bring your thoughts back to reality.

How do we do this? Take control of what is going on in your head by saying, (either in your head or out loud) ‘S.T.O.P stop’. You must spell the word first as that kicks your brain out of ‘auto-pilot’ mode and gives you back control. The next thing to do is focus on your surroundings using your senses. Listen, what can you hear? Look, What can you see? Touch, What can you feel? Don’t give in to the compulsion you are experiencing checking what these symptoms are. Try to break the habit by doing something completely different.

Stay away from Dr Internet, Googling symptoms is one of the worse things you can do as diagnoses are notoriously inaccurate. Stop self-diagnosing too, checking your blood pressure, pulse and heart rate will only lead to unnecessary anxiety therefore making things worse. Instead, focus on ways to make your body and mind as healthy as possible.

You might like to check out this video on our YouTube channel where Dr. Rob Willson talks to us all about health anxiety: Dr. Rob Willson PhD talks health anxiety with No Panic

How can No Panic help?
Our support services, whether individual or in a group aim to provide the skills needed to manage/break the chains of anxiety disorders.
Our aim is to give the necessary advice, tools and support needed to recover and carry out this journey. You can find out more here: No Panic Recovery Programs

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6 thoughts on “Health Anxiety”

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