What is Health Anxiety & How You Can Overcome It
The Hypnotherapy Directory recently asked me to write a health anxiety page for their website. It prompted me to reflect on a period of my life when I experienced health anxiety and how I beat health anxiety. You can read more about it here. Health anxiety is crippling for some people. The pandemic has made everyone check their health status in a way that only someone with health anxiety does. This might hide health anxiety symptoms. As we come out of constantly checking for illness into a more normal way of life you might worry about and wonder why people no longer care.
What is Health Anxiety?
The NHS criteria for health anxiety disorder is a casual combination of the criteria for illness anxiety disorder and somatic symptom disorder found in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM. It lists the symptoms of health anxiety as:
- A constant worry about your health.
- Consistent checking of your body for signs of illness.
- Constantly seeking reassurance of wellness.
- Concern that medical professionals may miss something or have missed something.
- Over researching health.
- Avoidance of serious illness.
- Living as if you are unwell.
When you have health anxiety these behaviours feel justified and rational. So much so that you might feel concern about others not checking themselves in the same way. When you have health anxiety, symptoms seem so real. I always advocate trusting your instinct. I believe that you are the expert in yourself and if you feel something is wrong it is important to push for answers. However, if you have explored different avenues and everyone assures you that your health is in good order you might have health anxiety.
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Health Anxiety – Physical Symptoms
Some people understand anxiety as worrying thoughts. However, anxiety is primarily your body’s self defence mode. When your brain perceives something as a threat to your life it will prepare your body to fight or flee. If it recognises the threat as too great to do either of these things it will freeze, dissociate and play dead. You can learn more about anxiety in my blog posts found here. In order to run or fight for your life your body must prepare physically. Your muscles need extra resources, your eyes need more light than usual to see brilliantly, your body needs to stay cool. This means a quickened heartbeat, dilated pupils and sweating.
These physical symptoms are the most prevalent symptoms of anxiety. Confusing feelings, especially when your human thinking brain does not feel under threat. Your body does not have the equipment to function in a permanent state of anxiety or stress so when forced to, other symptoms may appear. When you already feel concerned that you have ailments, the increase in physical symptoms enhances the belief that something is wrong with you.
How to Overcome Health Anxiety
A big challenge with health anxiety is accepting your concerns as anxiety rather than searching for the ailment you feel convinced you have. As with fears and phobias, anxiety helps you to feel safe. If you let go of your health anxiety will your perceived illness suddenly worsen? Or will you fail to notice when you develop a serious health problem? The feelings of fear are very real.
Overcoming health anxiety is possible but it takes acceptance. Acceptance that your symptoms are either typical feelings of your body functioning or physical symptoms of anxiety. Some people believe that the mind is so powerful it has the ability to create physical symptoms, other people believe that when you focus on a physical feeling intensely it becomes stronger and more noticeable. In both these situations your own thoughts cause a physical reaction that you perceive as a fault in your body. Overcoming health anxiety means recognising the cause of your worries and symptoms is health anxiety, learning how to cope with health anxiety and learning how to stop health anxiety symptoms.
How to Stop Health Anxiety
I recognise health anxiety as a mind body misunderstanding. Many years ago I worked with someone that considered themselves intolerant to many food types. So many that it interfered with life. This anxiety developed after an illness. After working together for some time we recognised that many of the feelings were typical feelings felt in the digestive system. A small rumble in the tummy, a little bit of wind. Nothing too dramatic but still feelings nonetheless.
This person’s health anxiety – specifically around food intolerances – reached the point where they believed they should function without any physical feelings. When you have a system as intricate as the human body, feelings happen. We should feel. When you stop and listen to your surroundings for a moment you hear many different noises, similarly when you stop and focus inwardly there are many different physical feelings. If you perceive physical feelings as a malfunction you will focus on them and feel continually concerned, questioning what each feeling is and why it is happening.
Hypnotherapy will help you overcome health anxiety and regain trust in your body’s ability to function. You will learn to tune into the feelings and enquire with curiosity and awe rather than fear and concern.
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How to beat Health Anxiety
Some people develop health anxiety when they perceive a physical trait, such as a lump or bump, as an indicator for serious illness. For example, a lump might cause anxiety about cancer. Of course it is advisable to have things checked over by a professional with experience and seek a second opinion. However, there is a point at which acceptance is necessary.
As in my story linked above, I irritated my normal bodily bump so much that it swelled and reignited the health anxiety fire. Acceptance does not necessarily stop the health anxiety behaviours. In addition to accepting your ‘all clear’ result or your diagnosis of health anxiety you must make a choice to stop your constant checking. If you experience anxious thoughts, actively tell yourself to STOP and change the thought. Some people prefer to change the thought completely. Others like to repeat a positive affirmation such as “my body is well, my body is strong and functions brilliantly”.
If you search for physical symptoms use thought stopping techniques to change that. If you feel for physical symptoms, such as lumps and bumps, make the conscious decision to stop. It is advisable to check for lumps in certain areas of the body such as the breasts and testicals. However the current advice is to check monthly. When you make the decision to stop obsessively checking, use a marker, such as the first of the month to check in a (mentally) healthier way. Some sessions with myself or another hypnotherapist will help you to commit to this plan. When you assert your power, take control of your thoughts and actions you will see results. This is all easier said than done – hypnotherapy will help you find your power and control so it becomes possible to overcome health anxiety.