Ask a therapist: how can I deal with anxiety about my health?
In the current climate, worrying about our health is expected. HLN's Expert in Residence, Sian Barnard, talks us through how to cope and provides a useful meditation to help us relax.
By Sian Barnard
What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is classed as an obsessive and irrational worry that you’re suffering from a serious illness. It can affect anyone at any time, however with the current Coronavirus pandemic it can become harder to differentiate between a rational (and necessary) level of concern for one’s health, and an excessive and unnecessary level of anxiety surrounding your health and wellbeing. If you’re constantly pre-occupied with a particular symptom or part of the body, whether COVID-19 related or not, then it’s possible you’re suffering from health anxiety.
How to recognise that you’re struggling with Health Anxiety
There are many indicators that your health anxiety is more than just a regular worry about something. Constant thinking about getting ill, or already being ill is the most important and initial red flag. Feeling panicky and catastrophising about the worst possible outcomes without any initial cause for concern is also a big indicator that health anxiety is prevalent.
For example, if you find a new mole the rational thinking is “I should make a doctor’s appointment to confirm this isn’t anything serious” then putting it out of your mind until your appointment. Those struggling with health anxiety, however, will make the appointment then relentlessly worry about the mole being an indicator of something serious, such as cancer, until they’re convinced that it can only be cancer and there’s a chance they might die. This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the differences in thinking.
Another symptom of health anxiety is constantly checking the internet for confirmation that your illness is serious and asking people for reassurance. Prodding or picking at the body part is another sign of health anxiety taking over your mind. If your worries and thoughts surrounding your physical health begin to take over your everyday life, it’s time to do something about it.
What can exacerbate health anxieties?
The worst thing you can do to make health anxiety worse is to keep checking! This is a huge driver when it comes to worsening health-related anxiety and leads to churning the worst-case scenarios round and round in your head. Try to stop yourself from circling negative thoughts and worrying as quickly as possible.
How to alleviate anxiety surrounding health issues
If you’re worried about your health, it’s perfectly acceptable to make a doctor’s appointment to get whatever it is checked out. However, remember to listen to your GP’s diagnosis and learn to accept it. It can be tempting to dismiss your diagnosis and go home and start your own investigation, but this will inevitably only exacerbate your health anxieties further. Try to stop checking symptoms and seeking reassurance from others, and practice techniques to designed to help stop worry and anxiety in its tracks.
It can be incredibly difficult to teach anyone to stop worrying in one fell swoop. If you think you’re suffering from health anxiety, I would always recommend making an appointment with a suitable therapist to talk through the anxiety and get to the source of the problem. It’s often easier to prevent anxious thoughts once you understand the reason you have them, rather than just masking them. However, in the meantime, there are some truly amazing techniques found in the book “Overcoming Worry”, by Mark Freeston and Kevin Meares (£1.63 on Amazon), which I highly recommend everyone reading at least once.
How to manage health anxiety during the Coronavirus outbreak
Whether your health anxiety pre-dated the COVID-19 pandemic, or it’s something you’re newly struggling with thanks to the outbreak, these are unprecedented times for all of us. The best way to manage illness-based anxiety during something as severe as this is to try to accept the statistics. The vast majority of people will be fine during the outbreak, and the statistics are good for those who do catch it.
If you’re considered ‘vulnerable’ during the pandemic, for example, if you’re older or have a compromised immune system, it’s about learning to manage the worry in a proactive way, particularly as worry triggers a cortisol release, which can actually compromise your immune system. Learning to relax and manage your stress whilst learning to accept what’s in your control, and what’s out of it, will be key to coping.
Serious health anxiety does require CBT interventions to prevent it from worsening, and I provide mindfulness and hypnotherapy sessions to help the mind stay in the present moment, rather than spiralling into what-ifs and worst-case scenarios.
It’s important to try and remember that worry is a completely non-productive feeling, and it doesn’t actually change anything. Catastrophising about worst-case scenarios of hypothetical futures can cause our minds to make the body think that it’s under threat. Instead, practice high standards of hygiene, and learn to meditate, which can counteract the fight or flight instinct, and instead puts our bodies in the rest and digest phase.
About the author
Sian is a cognitive behaviour therapist and also a clinical hypnotherapist, having trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London and the College of Clinical Hypnosis. Four years ago Sian relocated her Harley Street practice to her native North East after 26 years in central London. Sian now runs her private clinic in Gosforth and also owns a training academy to help organisations with stress reduction. Sian’s approach is to help people become their own therapists, whether they come to see her for panic attacks, depression or OCD (she covers a wide range of emotional and behavioural issues).https://peacefulminds.org.uk