The relentless power of health anxiety
Of all the forms of anxiety, health anxiety can be one of the most treacherous and certainly one of the most relentless.
It is estimated that the human body goes through about 200 changes a day. Most are too small to notice, but for someone with health anxiety it means there is a never-ending source of fresh misery. A new spot on your arm, a pain in your stomach or a rash on your leg, all get interpreted as life threatening.
Imagine you’ve been given the news that you have a terminal illness, that’s how a lot of sufferers of health anxiety feel every single time they experience a new symptom, however small.
And the results can be crippling. At its worst, sufferers can’t function, they stop eating, they can’t go out, they can’t work, look after their children or see friends. In short, it can ruin your life.
In common with other forms of anxiety and depression, one of the biggest frustrations of having health anxiety is what you lose as a result.
For instance, you might be driving to the supermarket to get the weekly shop, when you notice a pain in your calf. Immediately, the bad thoughts start. What if this is a blood clot or bone cancer? Often it then becomes impossible to carry on. Distress makes you turn the car around and go home where you can then check your calf, often multiple times. This in turn feeds the anxiety and, meanwhile, the shopping never gets done.
Health anxiety is a bit like living in a strange, parallel universe which sees threats in what others consider commonplace. Visits to the hairdresser aren’t enjoyable, instead there is the worry that the hairdresser will find ‘something’ on your head. The same applies to dentists (they’ll find something worrying in my mouth) And then there are eye tests, facials, massages and, in fact, anything which involves human contact – something which can badly affect relationships.
In extreme cases sufferers even take baths and showers in the dark because they’re too afraid of spotting something worrying while washing.
Then there are the numerous everyday objects and experiences which to the health anxious are also a danger. Scented candles are potentially carcinogenic, as are wood burners, open fires and BBQs. On a bigger scale, there is air pollution and, of course, catching diseases, which has made living through a pandemic very hard for most people with health anxiety.
Having fears like this makes everyday life an immense struggle, but Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can provide a comprehensive and effective framework to challenge all aspects of health anxiety. In particular, it can help sufferers to challenge and reduce the impact of the bad thoughts about health.
But here are a few simple tips that can also help:
- Remember that your body changes in dozens of ways every single day, this is normal, it’s just anxiety which is making you notice these changes.
- For those with health anxiety who avoid getting check-ups or any kind of medical intervention in case something is found, try to think of the medical world as something which is on your side. It’s trying to make you better.
- Be health conscious rather than health anxious. We have a fantastic health service with lots of specialist services. You don’t need to be super vigilant, just health aware. And if something does go wrong, you will be in good hands. Let go of some responsibility.
- Accept that you might get ill, but the likelihood is you’ll also get better. It is not just a case of perfect health or a terminal condition. There’s a lot in between.
- Try to imagine what your less anxious self would say when you start to worry about a new symptom.
- Look out for ‘magical thinking.’ For example, if you manage to forget your anxieties for a little while, you will not be punished and get ill because you took your eye off the ball.
It can also be a very lonely problem to have because there is still some stigma around having this kind of anxiety. After all, it’s not that long ago that it was referred to as hypochondria. But there is professional help, understanding and compassion to be had.