Here’s how to cope with health anxiety

How do you know when worrying about your health is affecting it? We quiz an expert on what health anxiety is and the coping strategies you need to deal with it.

In the internet age, we’ve never had so much information instantly available at our fingertips.

Yet, when it comes to your wellbeing, this glut of information can be dangerous. Instead of reporting directly to a doctor, we now turn to Dr Google and search for our symptoms.

Suddenly that itchy spot that didn’t bother you before is skin cancer, your headache is a stroke and your racing pulse could be a heart attack.

Sound familiar? While most of us pass off those invasive thoughts, there are some who examine every sign and symptom under a microscope – and that practice could be ultimately making your health worse.

This condition is known as hypochondria – and if it sounds like you, then here are the signs and symptoms to look out for and how to know when
to seek help.

A very real fear

“Hypochondria, also called health anxiety, is definitely a real illness,” Dr Dolly Habbal, clinical psychologist at Advanced Cure Medical Center, asserts. “The patient is constantly and excessively worrying that they are, or may become, seriously ill.

“It’s a long-term chronic condition that can fluctuate in severity,” she explains. “It may increase with age or during times of stress.”

While it’s normal to worry about your health to some degree, hypochondria means that your thoughts may be consumed by it, causing you to over-examine minor sensations or illnesses.

Dr Dolly adds, “[People with health anxiety] focus on normal bodily sensations or minor symptoms and misinterpret them as signs of severe illness, despite the fact that there is no such physical evidence as the person has consulted many doctors and had physical
exams, blood tests and MRIs – and all turned out to be normal.”

Knowing the signs

While there are no predisposing factors to developing anxiety surrounding your health,
Dr Dolly notes that your environment and personality may have something to do with it,
as well as past experiences.

“Factors that may play a role [in developing hypochondria] include family,” she notes. “[People] are more likely to have health anxiety if their parents worried too much about their own or their child’s health.

“If you have had a bad experience with serious illness in childhood, any physical sensation may also become frightening. You also may have a tendency toward being an anxious person who worries a lot.”

As with any illness, health anxiety comes with its own symptoms – and if you find yourself on Google with each sniffle, it could be a sign.

“Excessive health-related internet use is considered to be a strong factor, as the patient is focusing more and more on their symptoms instead of ignoring them,” she says. “They might be preoccupied with having or getting a serious illness and find little or no reassurance from visits to the doctor or negative test results.”

With other symptoms including withdrawal from friends or activities and ‘doctor shopping’ – a practice where patients go to different physicians in search of a diagnosis – the symptoms of hypochondria can be subtle to an outsider.

Getting help

If the anxiety about your health is getting on top of you, you may need to seek assistance from a medical professional. Dr Dolly recommends working with a psychologist to address the root of your anxiety.

“One strategy for treating hypochondria is cognitive behavioural therapy,” she advises. “[This] can teach the patient skills to manage their anxiety disorder and find different ways to manage their worries other than medical testing.

“[I’d] also advise the patient to avoid looking online or seeking any reassurance from doctors – this can strengthen symptoms in the long-term. Keep yourself busy with constructive activities and don’t focus on your symptoms.”

Top tips 

Join a group: A problem shared is a problem halved, so consider joining a support group to connect with other people suffering from health anxiety.

Stay active: Exercising triggers the release of endorphins, keeping those anxious thoughts at bay, as well as keeping your body healthy.

Talk it out: Talking to a counsellor, psychologist or therapist may help you find
the cause of your anxiety.

Keep them close: Your friends and family are your support network – be sure
to keep them in the loop.

 

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