Health anxiety in Action:
Ming is a 28-year-old woman who is afraid of air travel. She once read about deep vein thrombosis (DVT) resulting from long flight times and, after that, became significantly anxious when flying for work or to see her family. She’s worried that, on a long flight, she could develop a clot.
Olivia is a 16-year-old girl who lost her younger brother to cancer when she was 9. As a teen, Olivia started experiencing anxiety about her own health. She worries about cancer and about other illnesses, too. Often, she thinks about her brother’s diagnosis, how so many things happened unexpectedly, and how he suffered and ultimately lost his life, even with top-notch medical care.
Carlos is a 35 year old man who constantly worries about contracting HIV. Whenever he has sex with a new partner, he starts obsessing about illness. Despite using condoms, and taking Truvada, a pre-exposure HIV prophylactic, he worries that he might have contracted HIV, to the point that he gets tested a couple of times a month, just to be sure. Each negative test alleviates his anxiety some. . . until next time.
What do Ming, Olivia, and Carlos have in common? They suffer from health anxiety.
What Is Health Anxiety?
As it sounds, health anxiety is anxiety about one’s health, potential illness, or disease. Those who struggle with health anxiety are preoccupied with the idea that they have or could contract an illness. Typically, folks are afraid of serious illnesses, though some may be worried about more minor conditions, based on the circumstances. Many individuals with health anxiety seek out multiple medical professionals, tests, or procedures for reassurance that they are healthy. The reassurance is often short-lived, with folks feeling the need to get a second (or third, etc.) opinion or believing that doctors might be missing something. They might avoid certain people, places, or experiences for fear of exposure to illness. Health anxiety, if significant enough to impact functioning, can warrant a diagnosis of Illness Anxiety Disorder, or more colloquially, hypochondriasis.
If, like Ming, Olivia, and Carlos, you, too, worry often about your health or about contracting a serious illness or disease, there are some things you can do to challenge your health anxiety. These steps take effort and practice but can reduce your experience of health anxiety over time.
How to Cope with Health Anxiety:
1. Break up with Dr. Google. Seriously. Stop searching for symptoms or what’s wrong online. Chances are, you’ll convince yourself that you have everything under the sun – when you don’t. Only seek answers from qualified health professionals.
2. Do get a regular physical and see medical professionals as appropriate. This can help you (likely with the help of a mental health professional) challenge your fears based on actual clinical evidence.
3. Reduce checking behavior. The more you seek out doctors and tests, the more you reinforce your health anxiety. Health anxiety is similar to OCD, with obsessions focusing on health and compulsions being frequent health checking (e.g., doctor’s visits, looking online, scanning your body). With OCD, the more you engage in compulsive checking behaviors, the worse the OCD becomes over time. It feels good to check in the moment (i.e., anxiety temporarily decreases) but this doesn’t last long, and you’ll feel the urge to check again. Consciously stopping checking (even with rising anxiety) can be an effective approach.
4. Check your tendency to catastrophize. Is it possible you’re magnifying risk as a result of a hyper-focus on your body? Observe your “what-if” thinking. Is it possible that whatever you’re thinking could also not be true? Is it possible that whatever symptom you have could be attributed to something else, something that isn’t so concerning? In Ming’s case, one time after a long plane ride to see her family, she felt a cramp in her calf as she lay in bed at night. At first, she panicked, thinking that this might be DVT. But then she realized that she had walked a lot that day, through airports and around town, and it was likely that her legs were just fatigued from all the activity.
5. Follow the two-symptom rule: This is a guideline I created after working with several clients with health anxiety. It refers to looking for multiple signs and symptoms before starting to worry about illness. All bodies have unique and uncomfortable sensations at times. That’s just part of the human experience. Perhaps you’re sitting at your desk one day, or relaxing on a bench only to feel a wave of dizziness pass over you. That doesn’t mean you have a brain tumor. Start looking for multiple symptoms before you “go there.”
6. Get help from an anxiety therapist who specializes in CBT. A trained professional can help you practice the above recommendations more effectively. It’s particularly important to find help from a provider who can help you address the thoughts and behaviors that reinforce your health anxiety – and work with you on these to reduce your worry about health and illness over time.