Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
Navigating A Health Anxiety Disorder & How To Cope
Published Apr 22nd, 2021 & updated on Jan 19th, 2022
Having health anxiety is difficult in a regular year. Avoiding high-risk places like hospitals, constantly checking your body for signs of abnormalities, and researching every single illness on WebMD is exhausting. You’re always worried about health! And when a world-wide pandemic hits, the tiny comfort bubble you’ve created suddenly starts to get even smaller.
It’s suuuper normal to be worried when your body is actually sending you signals that you’re sick. But health anxiety will make you react in the extreme to the most minor of symptoms (or convince you that you’re sick even without them!). So, here is how health anxiety shows up, how to deal with it, and what the diagnosis process looks like.
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is basically the intense worry about having a serious medical condition! You may have heard the term “hypochondria,” which is what health anxiety used to be called. But, let’s be honest, that word sounds a little extreme and it isn’t always portrayed well in TV shows or movies — like Wally and Sebastian in the movie The Switch. During their aquarium scene, Wally tells Sebatian about his “bouts with hypochondria” and Sebastian immediately says, “Oh my god, I have that.”
Sure, it is sometimes referred to as the “do-I-have-this” disorder. But health anxiety goes waaay beyond saying “I have this” and “I have that.” Just like the name hints at, there’s actually a whole lot of anxiety involved when you’re constantly worried about health! Especially since a lot of health anxiety revolves around the most distressing of illnesses, like cancer. On Season 1 of the Anxious Like You podcast, psychotherapist Nadia Addessi has advice for when this happens:
“Ask yourself: where is there proof of this? Are there facts that go against this? Is there evidence to go against this — or for this? What’s a more realistic thought that I can have? This is something that you need to practice every time that health anxiety comes up.”
Types Of Health Anxiety
There are two ways health anxiety can manifest. If you take a minor symptom (like a little, sharp pain in your back) and spin it into a huge condition (like a spinal cord tumor), you might be experiencing Somatic Symptom Disorder. You have a very hard time with any sort of physical sensation, even the feeling of fatigue. You assume that feeling is threatening or harmful, and you automatically start thinking of worst case scenarios.
The other way health anxiety manifests itself is through Illness Anxiety Disorder. It can make you constantly worried about developing a condition, or excessively worried about a condition you already have. Hearing about someone getting sick, or seeing illness in the news, reaaally stresses you out. And, you tend to stay away from sick family members or health facilities to avoid it.
Causes Of Health Anxiety
Okay, let’s set one thing straight — no one chooses to have anxiety about health. It’s not exactly fun to be worried about getting sick, or your mind automatically jumping to “It’s an ANEURISM!” at the slightest headache. You’re not able to live a normal life because your body is always freaking out over your breathing, your heart rate, and blemishes on your skin! But this doesn’t just happen out of the blue. In fact, social factors are usually the cause.
These 5 things can trigger a health anxiety disorder:
- Health-obsessed family members.
- Major stress related to a specific event or situation.
- A history of serious childhood illness (or a scare with it).
- A history of childhood abuse.
- A habit of constantly checking your health online.
7 Ways It Shows Up
If you have health anxiety, you most likely spend a lot of time seeking reassurance from others. You’ll ask your friends, your family, and maybe even multiple doctors if that mole looks weird, or if your forehead is hot. There are many ways this disorder manifests itself, and you’ll want to be able to identify all of them when they happen, so here are some common ways that health anxiety can show up.
- Constantly worrying about having, or contracting, an illness.
- Not having any physical symptoms (or just very mild ones).
- Preoccupying yourself with an existing medical condition, or your family’s medical history.
- Screening your body over and over for signs of illness.
- Always looking up symptoms and illnesses online.
- Avoiding places and situations that could make you sick.
- Not going to doctor’s appointments for fear of a diagnosis.
“You can’t stay present,” adds Nadia. “Nothing else matters in the world at that moment (and the moments that follow) until it goes away, other than the fact that ‘this is death, I am dying.’”
Overcoming Health Anxiety
In truly cruel irony, that constant worrying actually then causes stress on your body. Any form of anxiety can be taxing on the body, because it takes on physical symptoms like stomach cramps, chest pain, and hyperventilating (ugh!). Plus, health anxiety can get worse if left untreated (like being obsessively scared of potential memory loss with aging). Your distress is VALID, but it doesn’t have to rule your whole life. So, let’s dive into how to get a diagnosis and how to cope!
Getting A Diagnosis
Health anxiety tends to lead you to seek medical help over mental help, because you genuinely think that something is physically wrong with you. Sometimes, you’ll even go to multiple doctors just in case the first three didn’t find what you expected them to. Or, for fear of actually getting the diagnosis you suspect, you may avoid the doctor all together!
When you do go to a doctor, they’ll probably give you a psychical exam just to make sure there isn’t actually anything funky going on. They’ll refer you to a mental health professional, who will ask about your family history and your worries, have you fill out a self-assessment, and ask about any substance use. From there, your route of treatment may involve medication, psychotherapy, or both!
“If you have health anxiety, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is very effective,” adds Nadia. “You can do exposure therapy where, if it’s really bad, you limit the amount of times that you’re going on the internet. Or, you limit the reassurance you’re getting from other people.”
Coping With Health Anxiety
Chances are, if you have health anxiety, it’s already affecting your work or school life, your relationships, and how you function on a daily basis. But we have some good news! You don’t just have to put up with it, you can overcome it. Like Nadia says, CBT is certainly a good route! And, we’ve got some tips you can use to calm your brain RIGHT NOW.
First, stop using the internet. It is the biggest instigator. Try keeping yourself and your mind busy by doing things you enjoy, which both cheers you up and keeps you the heck away from WebMD. Two birds with one stone!
When the worrying strikes, say these statements aloud (as many times as you need):
I am doing everything I can to keep myself safe and healthy.
I can challenge my worries with logic.
There is no proof of this illness.
I trust that I am healthy and well.
I am in tune with my body and it knows how to protect me.
And, stop seeking reassurance. “Stop seeking reassurance from your family, from your friends, from the internet,” says Nadia. “That is only enabling the anxiety and making it worse. You need to learn to work through these things on your own. (Of course, if it’s an emergency, contact your doctor.)”
For more info on health anxiety, tune into Episode 2 of the Anxious Like You podcast!