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Dealing with health anxiety

Have you ever experienced an unusual physical symptom and thought, "Oh no, what if that means I'm dying?" It’s normal to be concerned for your own health and the health of people you care about, like family and friends. Let’s look at how to cope.

Teen girl with thermometer in mouth staring at smarphone screen looking concerned

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety is when you worry about illnesses, injuries, diseases or other physical health and medical concerns. 

You can have health anxiety for your own health, or the health of people you care about, like family and friends.

Normal health anxiety looks like:

  • Being concerned for a family member or friend who is unwell
  • Seeking medical advice for symptoms that may indicate health or medical issues
  • Being concerned about health issues when there is an increased risk, e.g. during a pandemic or when travelling through a country with a disease outbreak
  • Reasonable changes to behaviour to prevent disease, e.g. following good hygiene practices

Practical strategies when you’re anxious about health

Here are some strategies to help you be informed and prepared.

Get info from trustworthy sources. Make sure any information you access is evidence-based and reputable.

Limit your exposure to media. Too much info can be overwhelming, especially if it’s only focusing on the worst-case scenario. 

Focus on what you can control. For example, you can practice good hygiene etiquette, and work on lifestyle factors that contribute to good health, such as eating a healthy diet.

Have a plan for medical emergencies. A plan will include your family and other supports. It might include things like monitoring and keeping a record of symptoms, knowing when and where to get medical help, packing an emergency bag and ensuring everyone knows their role.

Strategies for reducing anxiety

Here are some strategies to help you cope with anxiety related to health issues:

  • Challenge ‘what if’ thoughts. Our brain may jump to the worst-case scenario as a way to try and help us ‘prepare’ in case it happens. Worst-case scenarios are often less likely than other, more moderate scenarios. If this is happening to you, put the ‘what ifs’ on the witness stand and challenge them! Ask yourself, ‘How realistic is this?’ and ‘How helpful is this thought?’ If they aren’t realistic or helpful, don’t give them too much power. Redirect your thoughts to other things.
  • Share your worries with your family and friends. Often, young people don’t want to be a burden or add to their family’s stress levels. So they bottle up their feelings and try to cope with them on their own. Sharing your feelings can have the opposite effect. Families often find it helpful to hear each other’s fears and support each other through them.
  • Have a mental break by doing something fun! Most of the time, worrying about something doesn’t stop it from happening. But letting your worry rule you can ruin the present moment. Having fun with family and friends is a great way to de-stress, reconnect and build memories.
  • Be kind to yourself and others. People who are frightened of catching a disease (especially one they don’t understand) can sometimes behave in ways that are unkind. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were instances of violence over resources or racism. But suffering is a shared human experience that can also bring out the best in people. Finding ways to be kind or make a difference can bring meaning to suffering. 

If someone in your family is unwell, it can impact on lots of different aspects of your life, such as finances, your mental health, your social life, school work, your relationship with your family and even your ability to look after yourself.

When is health anxiety a problem?

If your health is good, and there are no other reasonable reasons to worry, you might be experiencing ‘Illness Anxiety Disorder’ (IAD). Some people with IAD regularly see doctors about their health concerns. But some people avoid medical help altogether.

Here are some of the common symptoms of IAD:

Fearing you have multiple diseases

Finding it hard to focus on other things

Spending a lot of time worrying about health

Becoming more anxious the more you read/research

Experiencing these symptoms for six months or more

Repeatedly checking or researching symptoms, i.e. Googling symptoms multiple times a day (this is sometimes called 'cyberchondria')

Why does IAD happen?

Anxiety evolved as a way to protect ourselves from threats. Scanning our bodies for clues can be an important part of prevention or early diagnosis when it comes to disease! But if your anxiety levels are high, these clues might be misleading.

People who are anxious about their health (or the health of others), might be extra sensitive to bodily changes. Normal body sensations that cause discomfort or are unusual might be misinterpreted as being dangerous. And the more you focus on your body, the more you might notice things that worry you.

When people with IAD find a possible ‘symptom’, they might find themselves jumping to the ‘worst-case scenario’. These thoughts are often unwanted and irrational and cause distress. People with IAD often try to reassure themselves by researching their symptoms or diseases.

Coping with IAD

Whether you are managing a genuine concern for someone who is unwell, or trying to manage your own health anxiety, there are a number of strategies that can help. 

The first step is to manage your anxiety. When we feel anxious, parts of our brain that are responsible for higher level thinking may not be functioning at their best. This means that we can’t think clearly, make plans, or solve problems as well as we normally could. Here are some helpful resources for understanding and coping with anxiety:

If you’re feeling anxious about your health, talking with someone can really help

You’re not alone – support is always available.

If you want to learn more about health anxiety and how to deal with it, give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

This content was last reviewed 28/04/2020

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