Coping with Health Anxiety During an Outbreak

With all the talk about the virus, it’s hard not to feel worried. In fact, it’s important to be cautious so we can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But, if you are someone who deals with health anxiety, being cautious can lead to hypervigilance and obsession about illness, symptoms, and health. If you are finding that you are preoccupied with the fear of getting sick, it’s important to be aware of symptoms of excessive health anxiety and learn how to appropriately manage them

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is also called hypochondriasis, illness anxiety disorder, or somatic symptoms disorder. This type of anxiety occurs when we misinterpret bodily sensations as dangerous. People with health anxiety may be fearful of any change in the state of their body or health. These syndromes are characterized by a preoccupation that you have or could develop a serious illness or disease. And the anxiety around health or physical symptoms can become so pervasive that it interferes with normal functioning and impacts many aspects of life. Health anxiety can cause people to avoid activities, it can impact sleep and it can even lead to physical symptoms. With the pandemic in full-swing, health anxiety is at an all-time high.

Worrying about health from time to time is normal. But when symptoms become debilitating, someone might display the following symptoms:

  • Preoccupation with developing a specific condition
  • Body checking for any changes or any slight sign or symptom
  • Going to the doctor frequently for examinations and evaluations
  • Mistaking normal sensations for signs of serious illness
  • Fears or worry about developing an illness in the future
  • Refusing to accept that nothing is wrong

Anxiety About Illness is Common

Before the pandemic, estimates are that health anxiety affects between 2-13% of the general population. And when it comes to consulting “Dr. Google,” about one-third of adults say that they have consulted online sources for information about their own or someone else’s medical condition.

But now we are living in a new world where health concerns and information about symptoms and death dominate news headlines. We don’t know the current statistics of health anxiety, but we do know that worrying about health can negatively impact our mental and physical health.

Anxiety About Health Can Make Things Worse

We know that stress can impact our health in a variety of ways. Anxiety about health is a form of stress. So if you are scanning your body and imagining the worst-case scenario, your body’s fight or flight system gets set off. Once the fear center in your brain, your amygdala, starts firing, your body then produces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones can actually lead to physical symptoms. This is why we can get a stomach ache when we’re nervous or a headache when we’re under stress. Health anxiety can create physical sensations and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our thoughts can be powerful, but there are strategies that can help.

Changing Your Brain

Mindfulness is important when you are working on reducing anxiety about health and illness. You can start practicing mindfulness by noticing when you are symptom-checking or body scanning. People who experience health anxiety often scan their body for any signs or symptoms that something might be “off.” This can happen many times throughout the day and you may do this without even noticing it’s happening. Becoming aware of these behaviors and being mindful of these thoughts is an important step in helping you identify triggers for negative thoughts about your health. 

Once you begin to notice when you are having these thoughts, it’s crucial to challenge these thought patterns. For instance, when you have a worrying thought about health or illness, try to ask yourself questions like: are there any other possible explanations for my symptoms? If so, what is the most likely explanation? What is a more realistic thought about this symptom or situation? What else can I think about to get my mind off physical issues?

When you learn something, it becomes a part of your brain’s neural pathways and associations. This means that you can learn habits and you can also unlearn old behaviors. By learning a new process and repeating it over and over again, your brain can change. So, if you can find some new, more rational thoughts to tell yourself during moments of panic, you can change the way your brain responds to health anxiety. The key to making this work is practice and repetition.

Schedule Worry Time

It is also important to not let yourself read all the negative stories about health and illness right now. If you are typically drawn to stories about illness and death, refrain from clicking on these headlines. Instead, opt for something that will positively engage your mind.

Additionally, you can “schedule worry time” and practice consistently making a specific time during the day to let yourself worry about your health. This should be no more than 30 minutes and a time that is far enough away from your bedtime so that your brain has time to settle before you go to bed. Acknowledge anything you are worried about and make plans for addressing any issues. You can even set a daily reminder so that you know when your worry time will take place and keep it consistent. If you start to feel anxious or focused on symptoms, put it off until your scheduled time. You may start to notice that the symptoms dissipate and when your worry time comes up, you have forgotten about the sensations you were worried about. Your brain will eventually get used to this new routine and it will start to be able to let worries go more easily. Scheduling worry time in this way trains your brain to have a contained time during the day to focus on anxious thoughts.

Focus on the Positive

When you focus on positive things, you can change the neurochemistry in your brain. Optimistic and encouraging thoughts are good for you and can counteract anxiety. Give yourself something positive to focus on and keep it in mind whenever you start to feel anxious about your health. Perhaps there is a vacation you have always wanted to take or something you are looking forward to when the pandemic is over. Focus on the details and really let yourself feel any pleasant feelings associated with this vision. We know that positive thinking can improve your health and it can also decrease illness anxiety.

If you are struggling, working with a trained therapist can help you learn strategies to relieve health anxiety. Contact our office for more information and to learn more about how we can help.

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