Today I’m focusing on the topic of health anxiety. It’s a very common topic in my consulting room and the first thing that I wanted to do was to define what “health anxiety” actually is. It proved difficult because health anxiety is not a “thing” but a process – the process of “health anxiety-ing” It’s something that the human brain “does” under certain circumstances.
This process also exists on a continuum from person to person. Most of us worry about our health from time to time. Sometimes that worry can become excessive and the person can spend at lot of time thinking about their health, noticing every little shift or pain in the body and worrying about what that sensation might mean for them. This uses up a huge amount of energy for the person involved and can really limit their enjoyment of life. It’s almost like all the brain CPU is being used to worry about this particular issue leaving little energy for anything else.
It’s worth mentioning that the human nervous system is designed to alert us to changes in the body and this is a protective feature of it. It’s also normal to experience shifts, different feelings and occasionally brief aches and pains. These typically come and go as the body and mind regulates and resets itself throughout the day. Problems arise when the mind fixes on an ache or a pain or say, feeling of pressure and constructs a scary story about what this might “mean”. The thinking then affects the sensations which then affects the thinking and round and round and circular “thinking loops” become set up.
It then becomes very easy to convince the mind that all sorts of horrible things are going to happen. This then increases the stress on the body and mind which makes it more likely that it will continue to pay attention to sensations in the body and so the process continues.
So how can you help yourself?
By all means, visit your doctor if you are experiencing new symptoms and are unsure about what might be going on. If there are specific things on your mind that are bothering you about your health then share these as it helps us to put the problem in context. An example might be a lady whose father died of colon cancer. She finds that grumbles and wind pain in her stomach increase her anxiety because she worries that she might have the same thing as her Dad. If her GP knows that this is on her mind, then he can specifically reassure her that she has a test for cancer recently and her current symptoms are likely to be due to something else such as diet or stress. Having a good relationship with your doctor helps as it builds trust. Try to see the same health professional each time if possible so that they get to know you.
Be aware of the effects of social media and the internet. There is a huge amount of information out there and it is pretty overwhelming. I’m not saying don’t Google your symptoms as I know most people do. Be mindful of the effect that internet searching has on your levels of anxiety and comfort. The brain feels far more comfortable if it has a “concrete” explanation for what is happening – even if this explanation is wrong (food for thought). Endless “googling” can be addictive and stress provoking. Our brains are also excellent filters of information and so you are also far more likely to see the “scary” explanation for your symptoms and fail to see evidence that would refute the hypothesis that there is something horribly wrong with you. I’d suggest writing down what your fears are (see point above) and discussing them directly with your doctor to get an objective opinion.
Look after yourself. Do everything you can to be healthy. This means eating a good diet (fruit and veg and fresh food), drinking plenty of water and sleeping well. Build time into the day for relaxation and spend time with loved ones. If we feel better, the brain is less likely to to flip into these worry spirals and the more energy we have, the easier it is to be aware of how we are feeling and take positive action.
Be mindful of the ‘process” of worrying about symptoms and do something different with your head when it happens. Perhaps distract yourself and do something else. Or you could do something practical like booking a doctor’s appointment to discuss the problem. It’s very easy to endlessly ruminate about something without doing anything practical to solve it or move forward (we’ve all done it). This rumination is highly draining for the brain and saps our energy.
Educate yourself. There are books out there on the subject of health anxiety. Have a chat with your doctor or health professional if you feel that you may be overly worrying about your health. It’s surprisingly common (or perhaps unsurprisingly!) for doctors and health care workers to worry about their health and so they are likely to be understanding. It’s very helpful to have the objective opinion of another professional as to whether your symptoms need further investigation or whether it is more sensible to wait and see.
This blog is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional, personalised advice from your doctor. Please, if you feel ill and are unsure or concerned, seek advice from a qualified health professional which could be your GP or Accident or Emergency if you have a life threatening medical problem. If you unsure, NHS 111 – http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/AboutNHSservices/Emergencyandurgentcareservices/Pages/NHS-111.aspx can help you decide.
With thanks to Garner Thomson for the material used in this blog. Further information can be found at: