Health Anxiety affects many people, and for many it can take over every waking thought. Here I share some tips on how to deal with health anxiety, and gain back some control.
First things first, what is health anxiety? Well, it’s an obsessive worry about serious illness, particularly developing a serious illness and dying. Most people would admit to feeling an element of fear at the thought of developing a serious, potentially life threatening illness. However, many will go about their day to day lives without thinking much about it. When someone has health anxiety, it can become something they worry about obsessively every day.
Those suffering from health anxiety will often fear and begin to believe they have a serious illness. When someone believes they are seriously unwell, for example with cancer, innocent and normal sensations throughout their body will be seen by them as a symptom of that illness.
They will then often check for other symptoms and read up on that illness. They focus heavily on their body, how they’re feeling and continually check for any symptoms.
This can often lead to someone developing unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, for example, checking, avoidance and reassurance.
Anxiety itself can cause some physical symptoms, which often people will interpret as symptoms of a serious illness.
Most commonly these sensations felt when anxiety kicks in is due to adrenaline. This is a kind of alarm for the body, and triggers our fight or flight mechanism. It’s important to remember that adrenaline is a normal reaction to anxiety, which is our body’s way of preparing ourselves when we feel frightened or threatened.
Years ago when our ancestors were cave men & women, there were lots of threats and it was vital they were prepared for an attack from animals. This is where our fight or flight response came in handy. The realisation of a threat meant adrenaline would be released and we would be ready to attack or run away. We don’t have a need for this mechanism as much today but we still have it inbuilt.
These feelings while uncomfortable, are not going to cause us serious harm. For example, a common symptom of anxiety is a racing heart, for those with health anxiety this can be interpreted as signs of a heart attack. In reality this is just our heart pumping blood faster to our muscles, allowing us to be ready to run away or attack (fight or flight)
Common physical symptoms caused by anxiety are:
– Fast, Shallow breaths
– Stomach cramps
– Feeling Light headed
– Dry Mouth
– Feeling hot, and sweaty
– Tingly hands & trembling legs
– Urgent need for the toilet
I speak from experience, I developed health anxiety when I was 15, a family member was diagnosed with cancer and passed away very quickly at the age of 40. It was my first experience of serious illness and death of a close relative and I silently struggled with processing it. I buried my feelings and a few years later they spilled out in the form of OCD & health anxiety. I managed to gain some control over my mental health until 2011 when I had my first child and things really went to pot. I developed PND, Anxiety (which lead to Agoraphobia) and Maternal OCD. My health anxiety reared it’s ugly head and I became obsessed with my health and the health of my precious babies.
As I described above, when a person struggles with health anxiety they will begin to focus on their bodies and innocent, normal sensations will be interpreted as a sign of illness. Often these feelings will go unnoticed but because we are focusing on that part of the body we notice any twinge. When struggling with health anxiety, it can cause us to worry and start to think there may be something wrong.
You can learn how to gain some control by practicing mindfulness exercises. A popular one is mindful breathing. I still use this myself when I feel a panic attack coming on. I particularly find one shared by Anna Williamson in her book “Breaking Mad – The Insiders Guide To Conquering Anxiety” helpful. Breathe in for 7 seconds (through your nose), pause, and then slowly breathe out for 11 seconds. This is a good one to use when you feel panicky. I find the counting helpful and distracting.
Another is imagining you have a balloon in your tummy. Each time you breathe in imagine the balloon inflating, and on the out breath imagine it deflating. Notice your tummy rising and falling with each breath. You can also use the same technique imagining you’re blowing bubbles instead. Whichever you prefer. It just takes away your focus from body part you’re thinking about.
Challenging the worrying thoughts
It’s important to remember thoughts are not facts. When you feel anxious, and thoughts spiral it can be difficult to differentiate between what’s a fact and what isn’t.
CBT helps you break these unhelpful thinking patterns. Two CBT techniques which helped me in particular were “STOPP” and “Take The Thought To Court”
STOPP stands for:
TAKE A BREATH
PULL BACK – PUT IN SOME PERSPECTIVE
PRACTISE WHAT WORKS – PROCEED
You can read an in depth description from getselfhelp.com here.
“Take the thought to court” is about taking a moment to look at the thought and find what facts/evidence you have for these thoughts. You can read a great description of this technique here and I’ve also added a printable sheet to challenge your thoughts below.
Another technique which some find helpful is “Apple” this stands for
You can read a more detailed description about this Apple exercise here.
One of the best things I tried was “doing things differently”. This was also the hardest because it meant doing the opposite to what my anxiety was telling me to do. The main three things those struggling with health anxiety do are checking, information seeking & reassurance seeking. So to challenge the checking I needed to stop checking my body, and also checking my children. I would become very anxious if my children became unwell and I’d be putting a thermometer in their ear every 5 Minutes! It can be difficult to resist the urge, but the more we practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes.
To challenge the information seeking I had to steer clear of Dr Google. I would hear about an illness and then check online for the symptoms, or if I was unwell I’d start checking my symptoms online, this always lead to me jumping to the conclusion that I must have cancer and would be dying in the next week. Try to stop consulting online websites. If you’re really concerned then book to see a (real life!) doctor and have a chat with them.
Finally reassurance seeking, this for me would be asking my husband or mum every five minutes “do you think they’re ok?” Or “do you think I have [insert life threatening illness]” or “what are the chances of me having it?”
Over a few days or weeks try to reduce these behaviours. It is tough but it really helped me, and it gave me confidence in my own decision making again. Try writing down your progress, keep track of how many times you’ve checked, as it can help us be more mindful about challenging our thoughts.
Another thing many people will do is avoid certain things which cause them anxiety, sometimes this isn’t a problem, for example, I know stories about childhood illness or cancer (in anyone of anyage) can trigger me and so if I see something online, I keep
scrolling, even if my anxiety is shouting “hey have a quick read to make sure no one we know has that illness” this doesn’t impact my daily life and does help my health anxiety. However on the flip side to that, when I struggled with anxiety after my first child was born, one thing which I started worrying about was what if I was out and I was injured or fainted in public, what would happen to her? So I started to avoid leaving the house, this resulted in me developing agoraphobia, so avoidance in this case didn’t help my anxiety. Be mindful of your triggers, but also ensure they don’t develop into unhelpful behaviours.
If you want to challenge your avoidance behaviour this can be done through exposure exercises and by facing our fears. This is what worked best for me when I struggled.
You can visit getselfhelp.co.uk read more about exposure & the FACE exercise.
These are just a few of the techniques I tried and found helpful, unfortunately, as with most self help & CBT techniques, these aren’t a quick fix. You do need to practice, and give it time. It will feel uncomfortable to begin with, but the more you practice, the easier it gets and over time you will notice you gain some control over your health anxiety. I still get anxiety, and I probably always will, but it no longer controls my life, it doesn’t cripple me and stop me doing the things I enjoy. I have a tool kit of techniques which I use when needed to keep me balanced, and hopefully they may help you too.
*Please note, It’s always best to see your own doctor or therapist, I am not a health care professional, these were a few techniques which helped me out and may help others struggling. If you have any worries about your health, or your anxiety please see you doctor*
I’ve gathered much of my research from getselfhelp.co.uk this website was shared with me by my therapists and I’ve found it really useful, feel free to have a visit and read more on mental health, and self help exercises.
You can watch a vlog I created about a week in the life of health anxiety on our YouTube channel
Watch my vlog about these techniques on our YouTube channel
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