5 self-help tips for health anxiety

Health anxiety can be described as a preoccupation with physical symptoms and sensations in the body, attributed with fear that they’re signs of serious illness. For example, somebody who struggles with health anxiety may believe a tight chest is a sign that they're going to have a heart attack. There may be certain illnesses that the individual is particularly fearful of that are often potentially terminal, such as cancer or heart problems.


If health anxiety is something you struggle with, you may have noticed it can be very difficult to think rationally about your symptoms and sensations and almost impossible to consider an alternative perspective or be reassured. With the internet accessible to most, it’s very common for people to google their symptoms, and then use the information they discover to fuel their fear and irrational thoughts with more possibilities.

If this is something you do, be aware that your perspective is likely to be impacted by irrational thinking if struggling with health anxiety. You might find yourself self-diagnosing with the worst-case scenario that you discover.

What causes health anxiety?

The NHS states that health anxiety is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Although it’s possible that health anxiety develops from genetic predisposition, often, life events can cause it to develop.

For example, it can be particularly prevalent following bereavement. It’s common for people to experience similar symptoms to a loved one if they died as a result of illness. At this time, questioning one’s own mortality is very common, this can lead to fear that they too may have a terminal illness.

Health anxiety can arise from the belief that you're not safe in your own body and an inability to trust that you're OK. You think that you're not OK and, therefore, this must be true. There might’ve been an adverse past event in your life involving your health that has resulted in you forming beliefs about your body’s capabilities. This can also be impacted by any long-term health conditions that you or a loved one may have been diagnosed with. Exposure to such things can lead to worry, anxiety and fear that you might not be OK.

Worrying about things is your brain's way of trying to make what is uncertain, more certain. There may be a belief on some level that anticipating serious or terminal illness will give you control over the outcome of it, or that it might prepare you in some way. However, this is unlikely to be the case and such news would still have the potential to devastate you - whether preempted or not.

If your fears were to come true, it’s unlikely that you would ever say “Oh I knew this would happen” and feel better for that. Instead, it’s more likely that you don’t have the feared illness, and you've stolen peace of mind from today by hypothetically worrying about what could be. Pay attention to your thoughts and sentences. Anything that starts with “What if…” is likely to be a hypothetical worry.

Symptoms of health anxiety

Some ways that health anxiety presents include:

  • Frequent checking for pain, mole changes, lumps and bumps. It’s important to state that checking yourself regularly for these doesn’t mean you have health anxiety and is actually an important part of self-care. But reflect on the obsessiveness of your thoughts around checking, frequency of checking and whether you feel reassured that you're OK, once you've checked and everything appears to be fine.
  • Perceiving and labelling physical sensations in the body as something serious. For example, believing a headache must mean you have a brain tumour or that a racing heartbeat must mean you're having a heart attack.
  • Making frequent doctor’s appointments, but not feeling reassured when they tell you that you're OK. 
  • Constantly worrying about illness and your health.
  • Asking other people for reassurance that you're not ill. Being unable to trust yourself and your own instincts on this. It’s also likely that you're not reassured by them anyway.
  • Not believing test results. Thinking they could have missed something. 
  • Googling symptoms and consuming other media about feared health conditions. 

It’s important to be aware that anxiety is often experienced in a very physical way. Therefore, worrying about your health is likely to cause more anxiety which will bring more physical sensations and more fear. This all fuels the cycle of fearful thoughts and beliefs about the physical sensations that anxiety may be bringing. For example; racing heart, sweaty hands, dizziness, heart palpitations and tension headaches; are all common physical presentations of anxiety that somebody with health anxiety may then attribute to signs of physical illness. On and on the cycle goes…

If you can relate to this and are struggling with health anxiety, let’s consider some things that might help you.

Self-help strategies for health anxiety

1. When you feel a physical sensation in your body, be curious about it rather than fearful of it

Feelings are messengers from your body, their purpose is to communicate what’s going on for you. Take some long deep breaths, with a longer exhalation than inhalation. Send your breaths to the physical sensation. Try to sit with it, without attaching fear to what it might be or letting your thoughts make a story up about it.

Just focus on your breathing and send your breath to the physical sensation. Try repeating the mantra “I am safe. I am OK.” After doing this for five to 10 minutes, reflect on your thoughts and how you feel about the physical sensation now. Can you still feel it?

2. If you're still concerned, make an appointment to see your GP

Take a notepad and pen with you, so you can write down what the doctor tells you. This is an important step, as having the doctor’s words written down will give you something to refer back to if you start worrying about the issue again in the future.

Prepare for the appointment by listing any questions you may have and be honest with the doctor about what you fear it could be. This will give them the opportunity to examine, refer for further tests or reassure you - whichever is relevant. 

3. If the doctor sends you for further tests, try sitting with this

Journal about your thoughts and feelings about the tests and possible outcomes. Process how this is for you. Practice step one regularly to aid this process. Remember, you don’t know the outcome and any predictions you make are just guesses. To become less anxious about anything is to work on accepting the unknown.

4. Step away from googling and self-diagnosis!

Remember, doctors train for many years to do their job, they have a wide range of knowledge and experience. The internet and age of instant information can be a blessing and a curse, particularly when it comes to health anxiety. That story you read about somebody finding out they had a serious illness - that’s likely to be in the news because it was rare. Stories are about the experience of the individual who went through them; it’s unlikely that their circumstances can be applied to the life of somebody else.

If consuming news and social media is fuelling your health anxiety, then try taking a break from this for now. Alternatively, when you feel the urge to google something or read a story, set yourself a 10-minute timer and see if you can move past the urge during this timeframe.

5. Try challenging and reframing your thoughts

It can be particularly helpful to do this by writing them down, as this engages the left side of your brain which is logical and analytical. Write down your thought, for example, “I have a headache and am frightened that it's a brain tumour.” Then list alternative explanations or thoughts underneath, for example, “I have had a stressful day, it could be a tension headache” or “Just because I think something, doesn’t mean that it’s true.”

Consider any evidence that you have to prove or disprove your thoughts. Reaching a new perspective on something has the potential to change your original thought, and may settle physical sensations that arose from the worry. 

If you've tried these self-help steps and are still struggling with health anxiety, it may be helpful to work with a therapist to explore it further, objectively. If you would like to work with me on this, please get in touch to book a session.

My approach to working with health anxiety is in an integrative way encompassing:

  • Looking to the past for potential cause - processing any bereavements, loss, adverse events, trauma, experiences of physical illness or accident.
  • Working on reframing thoughts and perspectives.
  • Finding coping strategies.
  • Psycho-educating about physical symptoms of anxiety.
  • Mindfulness and breathing practices.
  • Working on self-compassion and acceptance of uncertainty and physical sensations in the body.

Health anxiety can be truly life debilitating and if it's something you are struggling with, I would urge you to seek support. You don’t have to accept this as ‘the way you are’. If you want to work to change it, support is out there for you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9
Written by Katy Acton, BA (hons), MBACP Accred. Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9

Katy Acton (BA Hons, MBACP) is an Integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist with a private practice in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, also online and by telephone.

Katy has been supporting clients for over 12 years and is particularly experienced in working with bereavement, stress, worry, anxiety, relationships.

Katy has also published 3 journals.

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