Health anxiety has become even more prevalent and persistent in the last twelve months. It used to be that perhaps only a few people might find themselves obsessively worrying about a headache they suspected to be a brain tumor, but since the start of Covid-19, more and more people are reporting anxiety about their health.
Since we have all been instructed to be extra vigilant about our health and the health of others, it’s understandable that for some people, this has become an anxiety.
But living every day worrying that a slight tickle in your throat might be COVID or a pain in your stomach is cancer is no way to live. Aside from being exhausting to worry all the time, it can also lead to more worrying behaviours, such as unnecessarily self-medicating, obsessively googling and even ending up hurting yourself through unregulated treatments for imagined illnesses.
So how do we get on top of it? How do we stop feeling so anxious about what we worry is going on in our body?
We have some tips for managing this particular anxiety.
5 Tips for Managing Health Anxiety
Try to differentiate between symptoms and reasons.
Anxiety is a very physical thing. It is our body’s way of raising an alarm, of suggesting that there is danger. It does this by increasing our heart-rate, making our stomach twist, making us flush hot and cold, and all those other troubling things that can worry us so much.
Unfortunately, something tiny can make our body think it needs to raise the alarm.
Sometimes it can be something we don’t even notice. What we do notice, however, is that increased heart rate. That feeling like we are short on breath, and our chest is tightening. It’s totally natural to feel these things and think: “I feel so bad, like I’m dying. Something must be physically wrong with my lungs and heart!”
The truth is that the symptoms are very real. You are feeling pain and distress in your body. However, whilst the pain and distress are real, the reasons we connect with it are not. You don’t feel bad because you are dying, you feel bad because you are anxious.
This can be particularly confusing if the thing that has made you anxious is maybe something on your body. For example, when I was 16 I had a lump on my eyelid. I felt it and I was convinced that it was cancer. Immediately, I started to feel worse, I started to get short of breath and I instantly took that as a sign that I was right – I might be feeling symptoms from this “cancer.” But the truth was that I’d just scratched my eyelid and the “symptoms” were symptoms of anxiety.
Next time you feel “symptoms,” try and think about other reasons that might be making you feel that way aside from the worst possible idea. If it helps, even write down a symptom tracker with possible reasons, so you can see how perhaps a headache has more in correlation with times of stress than it does with a potential life changing diagnosis.
One of the worst side effects of the internet is that we only need to have to type “stomach ache” into google to see a host of deadly and terrible diseases that we quickly imagine could be waiting for us.
The reality is that whilst we go online with good intentions – trying to get more information and to “check” if anything is wrong – online articles are only going to provide us with more worry. Talk to someone instead, talk to a friend or a relative and accept their reassurances.
If you can’t hold back from googling, it might be best to channel your worry into something that might actually help you and support you.
Instead of googling “I think I have cancer,” try googling “what to do if you have health anxiety.” It will be more helpful and reassuring to visit websites that support people who are anxious about these things, and maybe even talk to and engage with other sufferers in forums.
Patient and Beyond Blue both host online communities where people struggling with anxiety can share their problems. Or, if you really feel like you need to talk to someone in person, consider calling a mental health charity like mind or Anxiety UK who can talk you through your anxiety.
Use distraction techniques.
Often, thinking about something makes it more noticeable in our mind. Like a watched pot never boils, or when you buy your first car you notice other people driving the same car everywhere you go, when we are worried about our headache we will feel worse or struggle to stop worrying on our own.
When we worry about our health we put our body on high alert, to notice any tiny change, any flicker of stomach cramps or twinge of neck pain. What can help is using other activities to distract yourself, taking yourself completely out of your head so you don’t notice your body as much.
Distractions are different for everyone. I prefer something that uses my entire mind so that I become less focused on my body. For me, this might be work, or watching an extremely involving TV show, or reading a new book. Why not try writing a list of distractions that you really enjoy (maybe reading, baking, cooking, singing, dancing, playing video games etc) and keeping it handy so that when you feel overwhelmed, you pick something from your list to do?
It might be nice to put these suggestions in a jar so that you have a surprise each time. This will help you start to build positive connections with being distracted, so you will likely relax faster and feel fewer symptoms of your anxiety.
Don’t curb your activities because of your anxiety.
Sometimes it can be tempting to change our lifestyle or habits because of a feared illness or disease. For instance, if you’ve been experiencing neck pain, you might have been holding back from your normal exercise routine, worried about an imagined tumour or deeper issue.
However, when we do that we validate the health anxiety. By validating it, we are sending our minds the message that we are right. We are more likely to continue to believe that there is something really wrong.
When we do the opposite, when we embrace our normal lifestyle and routine, we teach our anxiety that whilst the symptoms might be real we don’t agree with the reasons. Don’t let your health anxiety rob you of the things you enjoy in life.
We are currently living in a world where we have all had to curb our lifestyles and activities for the sake of our communities and our most vulnerable. This is a noble and necessary thing to do, but it is also very important for our mental health that we don’t take the instructions to take necessary precautions and use them to feed our health anxieties.
So ask yourself: Am I doing this because I have been informed by medical professionals it is the most sensible course of action to protect myself and others? Or am I doing this because I am afraid that something terrible might happen if I don’t take control of my body in this small way?
If it is the second one, maybe try making a list of the things you are afraid of. Let all of the worries pour onto the page. Then, on the other side of the page, try and imagine what you would say to a friend who was expressing these worries. How would you comfort them and provide rational reassurance? Allowing yourself to access that part of your mind will help you find the strength to try bringing your normal activities back. If it helps, keep a journal of your activities and set goals.
If you are a parent or carer, you may find our recent article 5 Activities to Look After Your Child’s Mental Well-Being to be helpful for your little ones.
Invest in some good relaxation techniques.
At the end of the day, health anxiety is an anxiety like any other. It is our mind’s way of coping with something that is scaring it, worrying it, or challenging how it processes normally.
It can even be our body’s way of coping with past traumas. Your anxiety about your headache is not really ever about your headache. Perhaps you are, deep down, worried about how being chronically ill would impact you. Perhaps you are scared what would happen if those you loved became suddenly ill. Perhaps you fear being out of control of your body because of a past experience that has hurt you.
It is for this reason that often our health anxiety is not really ever put to bed by googling, or talking to a doctor, or even hearing constant reassurance from family and friends. It is because our health anxiety is a symptom of something else and not a fact.
So it’s important to invest in processes that are going to help you deal with what is underneath the symptoms, and that can only be done when you are relaxed.
The important thing is to find something that helps you calm down your body’s natural fight or flight responses, so you can start working with the deeper issues behind your health anxiety, either with a trusted friend and confidante or with a mental health professional.
For Lily-Jo’s 4,5,6 breathing technique, click here!
In 2016, the British Medical Journal called health anxiety a “silent, disabling epidemic” and in 2019, health anxiety was the third highest presentation of anxiety via Anxiety UK’s national helpline.
People can often feel like they’re “being stupid” or “over-dramatic” when it comes to their health anxiety, but if you are struggling right now you are not alone.
It is a common problem, a current concern and something that you should never feel ashamed of.
Hopefully, in the coming year we will see less stigma surrounding health anxiety and more awareness of it in the public. Until then, we hope that these top tips will help you manage your anxiety. If you find you are unable to manage it, please don’t feel foolish contacting your local GP, who are trained to help alleviate your fears and discuss any further help they can provide for treating your anxiety.
If you have a close friend or family member who is a key worker, check out our recent article on how to cope with worry when someone you love is a key worker.
Want to know more about health anxiety and how to get some help? Check out these websites:
About the Author: Emma Hinds
Emma is a writer living and working in Manchester. She is a mental health advocate and has been blogging about mental health for the last ten years. Emma has a history of eating disorders and is currently living with a diagnosis of OCD and chronic depression. She has been working specifically with young people struggling with their mental health for the last four years and is now supporting the Lily Jo Project’s On Track follow up schools programs. You can see Emma’s work and follow her mental health blog here. You can also follow her on socials here: twitter@EmmaLouisePH and instagram@elphreads.