We all worry about our health from time to time and most of us will have given ourselves a scare by internet doctoring but for some people this can turn into a cycle of crippling anxiety.
Health anxiety or hypochondria can take over people’s life. They spend hours ruminating and worrying about minor symptoms such as aches and pains, skin blemishes or a tickly throat. Others focus on a particular body part or illness; they are terrified their heart is not beating properly and constantly monitor their heartbeat. Or they are worried about a particular cancer and spend hours looking for lumps. Getting the all clear from the doctors gives them a temporary reprieve but the cycle soon starts again with the constant worry, hours on the internet and frequent trips to the doctors. It can become consuming, obsessive and exhausting and as the fear grows so do the limitations on life.
When we focus internally and constantly scan our bodies for any pain or twinges, we will start to notice these symptoms more often. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or frequency illusion is when ‘something’ is brought to our attention and our brains begin to notice this ‘something’ even more. This reinforces our belief that there is a health issue and in turn increases the anxiety. It would be rather like becoming interested in a car, and all of a sudden you then begin to notice that model everywhere you go.
Health anxiety, in its severe form, has overlapping symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. For some people it can start because of a health-related traumatic event such as a loved one or themselves having an illness. Or the death of a friend or family member. It can be triggered by the birth of a child and the fear of not being able to look after that child, if something happens to you. For others the cause is unknown.
Once any serious medical condition has been ruled out, for those suffering from health anxiety, shedding the belief that there is something wrong with them can be extremely difficult. However, it is not impossible. If this type of anxiety is taking over your life, there are things you can do. All anxiety is exacerbated in times of stress and addressing any underlying causes of stress can begin the process of overcoming health anxiety. Usually our feelings are trying to protect us or make us happy: ask yourself ‘what is the anxiety trying to do for me?’
Once you have addressed any root causes of stress, learning some relaxation techniques to combat the anxiety, such as self-hypnosis, breathing exercises, using calming scents like lavender, listening to music or walking, will all help. Find something that suits you and persevere with it: for some it can take quite a bit of time and practice to learn to relax, and for others it comes more swiftly and easily.
Relaxation not only calms the body and therefore the mind, but it also offers distraction. If you find that you spend hours ruminating, finding an array of things that can distract you will help. I understand that this is easier said than done and I have had clients whose daily lives are ruled by this anxiety even though they are busy people. It takes a strict and firm mind to really move away from these obsessive worrying thoughts and you may need to get some help.
It can be hard and frustrating for those who are close to you to understand what you are going through, but their reassurance can really help. Explain to them that you are struggling with health anxiety and ask them for the kind of reassurance that would suit you best. Some examples if reassuring gestures could be a cuddle, a pep talk, motivation, or an internet ban. It is important that whatever you decide it is something that gives you the reassurance you want. If you can give them the answers and resources to help you, they will no longer feel like a helpless bystander and you will not feel so alone.
Make up a mantra: if you say it enough times, you’ll start to believe it. Every morning whilst you brush your teeth you could repeat to yourself three times, ‘my body is strong, I am ok,’ or choose something that resonates with you and be strict with yourself. It may feel silly at first but eventually you will start to believe it.
Think about what this anxiety is causing you to lose: is it time, energy, friendships, trips away? Once you realise how damaging it is to your life, you can refocus and think about what you do want. Is it to go out more, get a better night’s sleep, be able to concentrate at work? Think about the gains you can make to your life, make them goals and focus on the positive improvement. Break the goals down to make them easier to achieve and begin slowly, for example you could have the goal that you will not go on the internet for an hour before bed and fill that loss with something new and relaxing. Or tell yourself that you will have one hour each day at work where you will not worry about your health. You can then gradually increase this until your anxiety is a distant memory. It takes real strength to change habits and learn to think about something else, but we all have the resources to do it.
If you would like help to overcome health anxiety, please see my contact page.