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  • Writer's pictureGeorgina Sturmer

Tackling health anxiety

Health anxiety is a generalised term for a sense of anxiety, worry and fear that relates to our health.  I spoke to Happiful all about health anxiety for this article. If we look deeper, we can see that this is a ‘catch all’ term for a myriad of different experiences.  It might be a general fear of healthcare environments, an obsession with symptoms, a constant fear of illness, an anxiety around specific procedures.  It can manifest in different ways too, we might avoid the doctor or we might visit frequently in order to seek reassurance.  We might hide ourselves away for fear of germs or risk.  We might worry about ourselves or about friends or family.  

What does health anxiety feel like? As health anxiety isn’t necessarily one specific experience, it can be caused or triggered by a whole range of factors.  It might originate from childhood fears, or messages that we have internalised from our early caregivers.  It can develop in response to medical treatment that we have received.  And there’s also a more global sense of health anxiety that many people developed during and after the pandemic, when we internalised messages that the world was unsafe, and our health was at threat.  If we suffer from health anxiety, it might feel like a constant companion.  Or it can ebb and flow with time and circumstances.  It might rear its head when we need to deal with health related topics.  Or it can also present itself when we are feeling vulnerable for other reasons, and our mind reverts to old, familiar patterns.  

Coping strategies for tackling health anxiety. This is all about developing coping strategies that work for us when we are ‘in the moment’.  The challenge here is to find something that fits for you personally.  There are some generic ideas that are useful to soothe panic: breathing, grounding, and affirmations for example. But the reality is that what works for one person won’t necessarily be effective for another person.  One of my favourite tools to recommend is ‘five finger breathing’.  There’s something about the sensory connection between our sense of touch and our breathing that feels very soothing.  Longer term, it’s helpful to do so some work around the root cause of the panic.  If we can figure out where it originates and what it’s trying to tell us, then we can try to change our behaviours.  This is where therapy can be immensely helpful.  

The thought patterns that accompany health anxiety. Everyone is different, but with health anxiety we would typically imagine someone whose thoughts get ’stuck’ in a negative spiral when it comes to health related topics.  This can lead to overthinking or catastrophising, when we find ourselves paralysed in thoughts or fears about bad outcomes.  This can leave us feeling helpless or hopeless.  These thought patterns are sometimes accompanied by coping mechanisms that we develop along the way.  Often these are thoughts or actions that are helpful for us to reduce our sense of anxiety, like getting outside in the fresh air or reaching out to a friend.  But sometimes we might develop less helpful coping mechanisms, such as compulsive behaviours.  Compulsive cleaning or handwashing is often associated with health anxiety, particularly if the anxiety is related to a fear of germs or contagion.  

If we find ourselves stuck in a loop of negative thoughts or anxious behaviours then we can - without thinking - keep ourselves stuck there.  If we become obsessed with googling symptoms or searching online, then it’s important to be honest with ourselves.  Do we believe that we are going to find the reassurance we need to soothe ourselves and calm our panic?  Or are we more likely to find information that fuels our negative thoughts.  Especially if we dive into the echo chamber of social media or online forums.  Instead, think about the healthier and more hopeful coping strategies that might help you.  That might offer you a distraction, a change of scene and a sense of perspective.  Keeping a thought diary can be a helpful tool to track the thoughts and feelings that we experience around health anxiety.  This makes it easier for us to notice patterns and triggers, and also to look back and see if our catastrophic fears really did materialise.  

Longer term approaches to tackling health anxiety. With health anxiety - as with other forms of anxiety - it’s useful to recognise that the fears and worries are there for a reason.  This might sound counterintuitive if our thoughts feel unhelpful or intrusive.  But when we are feeling anxious, our anxious thoughts have developed as a form of defence.  If we explore the reasons for this, then it can help us to unlock our behaviour.  For example, if we explore our health anxiety, we might discover that it began following an experience in childhood, when we lacked the emotional maturity to cope with what was going on.  In therapy, we might find it helpful to explore our relationship with our inner child, and consider how to develop new ways of responding to the world around us.  

Keen to explore more? In counselling we can take a deeper look at how you feel about yourself. Click here to contact me, or click here to book a 30-minute introductory call. 

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