It’s no secret that mental health impacts physical health. We know stress can cause high blood pressure and depression can interrupt healthy sleep patterns.
However, the relationship between our brain and body doesn’t always clue us into the whole story. It’s not uncommon to mistake our symptoms for something more severe than the actual ailment or to get in your head before an important doctor’s appointment.
The trouble comes when worries regarding your health become disruptive to your daily life. This is known as health anxiety.
“I repeat the same tiring ritual every morning. I take the dreaded first look in the mirror, checking for odd bumps or any out-of-place sensations. I continue my scrutiny throughout the day, in a way that’s nearly impossible not to find something out of the ordinary. A razor burn. Skin cancer? Night sweats. I’ve contracted HIV somehow. Or I could have lymphoma” writes Laila Resende in How I Cope with Health Anxiety for NAMI.
Constantly worrying about your health is tiring, and if you’re wanting to make a change you’ve come to the right place.
The first step to conquering mental health challenges is to fully understand them, especially in the case of health anxiety. Categorized by obsessive and irrational worry regarding one’s health, health anxiety often causes one to misinterpret minor or normal sensations as severe illnesses.
The causes of health anxiety can vary and in some cases, there may not be an identifiable source. It has been associated with poor understanding of bodily functions, growing up around adults who are constantly worried about their health or experiencing health issues as early in life.
You may experience health anxiety constantly or it may be dormant and flare up when triggered by a health-related event.
Maybe you’ve gone to see your doctors for what you believe to be a cancerous lump under your arm. However, after a biopsy, they conclude it was just a mole posing no dangers to your physical health. You may think “my gut is telling me something is wrong” because you feel anxious about it, despite medical professionals reassuring you of your good health.
Similarly, you may be catastrophizing your situation, focusing only on worst-case scenarios. Engaging in these thinking errors, or cognitive distortions can create a cycle of unhealthy thought patterns that perpetuates your anxiety.
Health anxiety is a common experience, as it affects about 5% of the population. If you feel embarrassed or ashamed, know that you’re not the only one struggling. Whether you’re seeking help for your health anxiety or for a loved one struggling with it, be assured that are many ways to manage and treat it.
Tips and Treatment
You’re here because the worrying has interrupted your life in some aspect. There are parts of life you may be missing out on due to the dysfunctional relationship you have with your physical health. If you’re tired of your health anxiety ruling your life and want to make a change, then you’re already on the right track.
Following some of these tips and treatment options can help you get your health anxiety under control:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
If you find yourself dealing with cognitive distortions, such as catastrophizing, emotional reasoning, all-or-nothing thinking, or jumping to conclusions, CBT can be an effective treatment. These cognitive distortions likely stem from a dysfunctional core belief developed sometime earlier in life.
You may believe “all germs can cause serious disease” or “any symptom or sensation is linked to poor health”. CBT is helpful in eliminating these core beliefs and the cognitive distortions that accompany them as it emphasizes the connection between your thoughts and feelings.
It can also help you form new, healthy and true core beliefs to replace the old ones. For those dealing with health anxiety, taking control and examining your thoughts can be extremely important in your healing journey. This form of therapy challenges unhealthy thoughts and helps you develop a more logical perspective.
Keep a Thought Journal
If you’ve sought out CBT for your health anxiety, your therapist may encourage you to keep a diary. Attempting to sort through your anxiety and triggers in your head alone might not be effective, as it can be easy to revert to anxious thought patterns.
Using a thought journal is especially helpful when confronting the sensitive parts of your psyche. Seeing your thoughts and feelings written out can help you better understand your anxiety. You may notice you experience unhealthy thoughts that you weren’t fully registering before. Writing out the common thoughts you experience in relation to your health will help you identify patterns.
It’s also important to take note of how the different thoughts make you feel. What bodily sensations are tied to your health anxiety? Once pin-pointed, you can challenge and question the unhealthy thoughts rather than accepting them as fact. When you’re ready, fill out a thought journal template for health anxiety here.
Avoidance and safety behaviors are commonly seen in cases of anxiety. You’ll want to avoid triggers and engage only in what you deem to be safe activities with precautions in place. Often times this is inhibiting you from living the life you want to.
Through exposure, you can begin to break down barriers and challenge your avoidance. By beginning small, with little activities that cause anxiety you can build up a tolerance and discover useful coping mechanisms.
With practice and guidance, you can work your way up to facing bigger fears. Exposure allows you to use the skills you’ve been working on and assess how your treatment has been working.
Caring for a Loved One
It is very hard to see someone close to you suffer from health anxiety, as it can be debilitating in some scenarios. Avoid saying things like “it’s all in your head” especially if they’re not yet able to confront their anxiety.
Giving overly harsh advice may push someone with health anxiety away, and could prevent them from seeking care. There is a balance to approaching your loved one as providing too much reassurance can worsen the condition.
You don’t want to enable your loved one to continue living in a constant state of worry just as much as you don’t want to isolate them. Instead, kindly offer to help them get a referral for mental health care and gauge their readiness to begin treatment.
Anxiety disorders are common, but we don’t have to let them control our lives. There is a world of amazing experiences to be had in life and if we spend our time catastrophizing our bodily symptoms, we could be missing out. Remember that it’s never too late to ask for help, and we don’t have to suffer alone.
For more information about Health Anxiety read this article from the Cleveland Clinic.