Health anxiety is more common than people realise. It is also more serious than people realise. More than just worrying about health, true health anxiety is really quite debilitating to the person involved. It can quickly follow a pattern like the one below.
Health anxiety can begin after a period of ill health, after seeing a friend or family member ill, after a health scare or during times of public health concerns such as pandemics. Or it can even be a response to excessive life stressors.
Whatever the cause, it doesn't feel good at all.
Worrying about health can become prolonged, with people often focusing excessively on a particular symptom or concern. This may stay the same or it may change. Often when reassurance is given, the person may then begin to shift the worry to a different symptom. Or they may find their worries are resolved only to find themselves worrying about a different illness or symptom. This worry can then lead to heightened focus on the body area or symptoms - then it becomes a cycle of alert and noticing things that probably wouldn't normally be noticed.
This can then become a worrying concern/symptom as bodily sensations are zoomed in on and misinterpreted. We all have an in built super scanner to keep us alert to danger - very useful in our ancestors days when they faced danger that they had to fight or run from potentially on a daily basis - not so useful to us except when there's a true threat. But of course the part of our brains that protect us from threat is too clever at noticing danger - just not developed enough to know the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat..so guess what they do - that's right they focus in on any body sensation as if it were a predator or tiger about to attack us.
Increased anxiety can then lead to physical symptoms such as those experienced during fight or flight. And of course they themselves are then interpreted as something being wrong.
This then leads to increased hypervigilance or checking for symptoms. The person may then begin to search for information or reassurance. Checking google to hopefully get some reassurance that the symptoms are harmless, only this is more likely to lead to more panic as the internet tells us every possibility. Increased need for reassurance can also take the form of constantly asking friends and family what they think, comparing symptoms, or asking them to look at a visible sign on the body such as a mole or a spot.
It can also lead to a need to have medical tests in an attempt to find out what is wrong, but even when these come back normal, the need to keep checking is there. Either that or the focus will shift to a different symptom.
So how can you break out of this cycle?
A great way is to learn to challenge the worrying thoughts. Instead of just letting them carry you along into a cycle of worry - challenge them. Remember thoughts are just that - they are not facts and we don't have to believe everything we think. Ask yourself, is this an automatic thought, have I automatically gone to worst case scenario without any evidence of it being true? The problem with health anxiety is not being physically ill, it's thinking we are, and there's a big difference!
This of course is different to situations where people are really poorly and are worrying about it - but we are talking about health anxiety here - the worry we experience that is not in proportion to the symptoms.
The STOPP technique is really good for this:
S - Stop the thought - say the word "stop" in your mind.
T - Take a deep breath
O - Observe - just step back from the thought and let it be there but don't interact with it, just observe it.
P - Perspective - what could be an alternative or balanced view? What would I tell a friend if it was their worry?
P - practice what works - find something that you know calms you or provides a good distraction.
Grounding your senses - to take your mind from emotional brain back to logical brain practice 54321 - 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel/touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 deep breath.
With therapeutic techniques you can learn to break out of this cycle. I often work with clients on this issue - using a combination of different methods depending on the client..this can include mind calm skills, thought challenges, stress management, worry reduction techniques, self hypnosis to name a few.
Get in touch for a chat about how this could help you.