Health Anxiety relates to the excessive preoccupation a person has with their health. A few factors will determine the frequency and intensity of a person's anxiety. These include:
- The amount of time a person spends worrying about their health
- The degree of severity a person believes their health to be.
- How imminent a person believes their health condition will worsen
- Intolerance of the feelings of anxiety, sensations, and symptoms
Health Anxiety is not about whether you have an actual health issue or not. A person who is in optimum physical health or even a person who has an existing health condition can suffer from Health Anxiety.
This is where things can get complicated. Because experiencing anxiety itself can create real physical symptoms, it’s easy for relatively healthy people to assume that these symptoms are a sign that there is something wrong with their health. This in itself can create an additional source of anxiety, with many spending countless hours worrying about these symptoms and figuring out how to get rid of them. People who do have a diagnosed medical condition may also worry about their health to such an extent that they cause themselves more stress, exacerbating their existing health condition.
How Does Health Anxiety Come About?
As humans we are programmed for survival. Whenever we are in danger the brain sets off the fight or flight response. If were about to be attacked by a person or an animal then the fight or flight response helps to prime ourselves to either fight or to run away, in order to increase our chances of survival. Imagine a close call with a wild bear. Would you simply shrug it off and feel total relaxed afterwards? No, you would probably feel semi-prepared for the bear to appear again, and you would be scanning the environment for any signs of it. We can also trigger off this fight or flight response when we imagine that our health is under threat. For example, someone who experiences a panic attack might tell themselves that they are having a heart attack. This is a frightening experience for them and now fearing they might have another episode, they might begin scanning the area around their heart for signs that a heart attack might be on the horizon. Can you see how this works?
In a nutshell, people worry about their health issues, which causes anxiety. Anxiety makes us feel like we are in danger, and therefore we respond as if we are in danger. Whether you are aware of it or not have activated the 'FIGHT OR FLIGHT' response. This is why you feel geared up and on edge like a predator was about to attack.
Many people develop Health Anxiety as a result of:
- Experiencing an actual physical health issue
- Having a parent who overly protective of you in regard to your health
- Having a family member or someone close to you become seriously unwell
- Experiencing significantly more stress than usual
- Reading or hearing about a health scare in the media
People may tell themselves that they must worry about their health because if they don’t, they could get seriously ill or perhaps die. There will be a wide variety of reasons why people tell themselves that they must worry about their health. Sure, some initial worry might prompt you to book in to see a doctor, but beyond this will worrying be helpful, or will it fuel your anxiety even more?
Why Does Health Anxiety Continue to Persist?
Essentially, we engage in behaviours that allow Health Anxiety to stay in our lives. These behaviours may become activated when something ‘triggers’ us. The triggers may come in the form of thoughts, situations, physical sensations, or seeing something in the media about a health scare, for example. If we respond in a neutral manner, then these stimuli will have little effect on our anxiety. However, if we respond in a fearful or apprehensive way then we may give rise to a whole host of unhelpful behaviours that will only fuel the anxiety further.
Unhelpful behaviours may include:
- Googling your symptoms / spending long periods of time on health forums
- Checking / scanning your body for any changes in anxiety symptoms /health condition
- Obsessing over symptoms
- Wishing symptoms would go away
- Continually asking others for reassurance
- Going back and forth to the doctor for repeated tests
People may also go to great lengths to avoid their triggers being activated. These behaviours may include:
- Avoiding exercise to keep heart rate down
- Avoiding going to the doctor out of fear they might find something
- Avoiding watching the news
- Avoiding Public Toilets
- Attempting to block out worries
Whether the behaviour involves entertaining health related worries or attempting to avoid them, a person may experience short term relief. Relief feels good, right? Therefore, a person will be tempted to continue engaging in these behaviours for that short term fix. Unfortunately, this is exactly what keeps people stuck in the anxiety cycle. Short term relief through avoidance is all too tempting but results in long term suffering. Whenever we opt for avoidance, we inadvertently reinforce the idea to our brain that what we avoided was actually a threat to our wellbeing. If we are going reverse this vicious cycle, we must face our fears and be willing to endure anxiety in the short term in order to achieve freedom in the long term.
A big part of treatment will be identifying why Health Anxiety persists in your life. Time will be spent exploring what thoughts and behaviours you are engaging in that keeps Health Anxiety going. Identifying a persons’ beliefs about worry and anxiety will be essential to better understand what is driving their behaviours. For example, if you think that worrying is helpful then you are more likely to worry, right? If you believe that worrying will make you go crazy, then you might be tempted to try to block out your worries.
Treatment involves questioning your health beliefs, looking at things from a different perspective, and using counterintuitive techniques to outsmart your own brain so that you can reduce the amount of time spent worrying about your health. If we are no longer engaging in behaviours that keep Health Anxiety going, then it can no longer persist, right? This perspective and behavioural shift will take time and will only happen if you are willing to be an active participant in your own recovery. We can guide you in the right direction and support you on your journey, but it will be up to you to put in the hard work.
Are you up for the challenge?
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