The unpleasant presence of disease is everywhere. Or at least it seems that way.
In our information age, the daily deluge of articles, studies, news reports, and relentless commercials about this degenerative condition or that newly diagnosed malady can be frightening for a person prone to health anxiety.
Yes, once referred to as “hypochondria,” health anxiety is an anxious condition that is characterized by a tendency to worry deeply and persistently about one’s health.
If you live with this type of anxiety, you may find that a variety of general symptoms give rise to irrational fears that you have the worst and most rare of specific diseases.
A stomach ache is cancer. A headache is a brain tumor. Shortness of breath is a heart attack. The worry is real and a true obstacle to the contented life you long for.
In addition, worrying about illnesses that lurk in the body without symptoms can further elevate anxiety and make life miserable. Eventually, it actually compromises your body through lack of sleep and anxiety-related health risks further perpetuating the problem, seemingly confirming your worries and convincing you that you must vigilantly watch out for the hidden diseases that may cripple or even kill you.
Your health may in reality be just fine. But no matter how much your medical community reassures you, the health anxiety that lives in your mind may not be convinced. So what do you do? How can you corral this kind of worry?
A combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness practice, self-care, and distraction may help manage the worry:
Tips to Manage Health Anxiety
1. Learn about yourself.
What are your normal stress responses? Your unique responses are likely not the indicators of some rare disease, especially if those “symptoms” seem to pop up repeatedly.
2. Do real research.
Get beyond a list of scary symptoms and diseases provided by Google. Learn more about the illnesses that frighten you. The more you actually know, the less there is to fear and a sense of reality and control takes hold.
3. Avoid more doctor visits.
You know that the appointments are empty reassurance. This is about your worry, not real health risks.
4. Face your health fears.
Think the unthinkable diagnosis all the way through. Believe it or not, this actually reduces fear. You challenge the thoughts that frighten you by imagining, in detail, your worst-case health scenarios. Soon you’re not so sensitive to them.
5. Run the numbers and consider the odds.
It’s okay to contemplate briefly that you might have an aneurysm. But follow that thought immediately with, “What are the actual chances that I’m experiencing that condition?”
6. Take care of your body and mind just as they are.
• Exercise, sleep, and nutrition are vital for feeling your best.
• Do NOT seek out drugs from a doctor or otherwise to treat conditions you think you could have.
• Identify and challenge negative thoughts in a journal and work with a qualified counselor. Clarity and awareness are important allies against anxiety.
• Practice mindfulness meditation. Be still in the moment and aware of your thoughts and responses. Allow thoughts of illness to come and go without acting on them. You are in control of your worry. Breathe it out and let it dissolve.
7. Accept that life does not dole out absolute certainty.
None of us live in complete safety. It’s okay to respect and embrace life as it is.
Take the first step…
If you are ready to address your health anxiety and talk about how it may be affecting your life, I would like to help. Please contact me via phone or email so we can discuss how we might work together to achieve your therapeutic goals as quickly and effectively as possible.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Linda K. Laffey, MFT