“Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint“
Who could have predicted the events of February and March, 2020? An atmosphere of disbelief and worry seems to have drifted over us and stopped us in our tracks. Uncertainty about what might happen next and when the world might get back to ‘normal’ is a common theme. Only a few weeks ago, naysayers were claiming the virus wouldn’t change their lives and they laughed in the face of elbow-bumpers or social-distancers.
Well, maybe even the most cynical might be rethinking their attitude towards Covid-19?
For people who experience health anxiety, recent events are going to be more challenging – that’s understandable. Catastrophic thoughts about what might happen are common enough for those with anxiety and there really is nowhere to hide from the things that fuel these thoughts: social media, news headlines, conversations with colleagues, conversations in the playground…you could carry on the list.
So, What IS Health Anxiety?
Simply put, people with health anxiety have an unhealthy preoccupation with their health. Very often normal body symptoms are misinterpreted and you feel there is a real threat to your health (or sometimes the health of others). This is going to make you anxious. Your flight/fight system is switched on and this produces uncomfortable, yet harmless, physical symptoms. These symptoms can in turn trigger further unsettling thoughts, which in turn trigger more physical symptoms and unhelpful behaviours. A big one here is reassurance seeking. You are reassured for a short period of time…but then you feel the symptoms again, misinterpret them again, become anxious again, and here we have the vicious cycle!
People with health anxiety might well have experienced ill health in the past or have lost people they were close to. They might have developed a belief that bad things have and may happen. There are a whole host of reasons why someone might be more vulnerable to health anxiety than others. A psychotherapist can help you to understand this better.
Let’s look at Bob. He’s perfectly healthy but has always had a bit of a preoccupation with germs and making sure he doesn’t get ill. His mum was the same but sadly she died a few years ago. Bob has had no more colds, tummy bugs and headaches than anyone else but he doesn’t really cope very well when he’s off colour and tends to think of the worse-case scenario.
Last week he had a headache for a few days. He ‘Dr. Googled’ his symptoms, Wow! Who would have thought a headache could be a symptom of all those terrible illnesses thought Bob. This increased his anxiety.
He spent quite a bit of time scanning his body for other symptoms and focusing on them. He was pretty sure that he felt quite a few other aches and pains which he hadn’t noticed before…thank goodness he was taking the time to notice them, he thought.
He stopped going to the gym, in case this made the headaches worse and repeatedly asked his family if they thought he was off colour and what they thought he should do. Bob was stressed. He was anxious. How would he cope? What would his family do without him? Not only was his head aching but now he was feeling sick and shaky too. He didn’t want to go and see the GP because he might have his worse fears confirmed. Although he started to feel better after a week or so he had become a little more vigilant and made sure he checked his symptoms more carefully after that.
If you are relating to Bob, chances are you experience some health anxiety yourself. You can probably identify Bob’s unhelpful behaviours and thoughts and understand the negative impact of his anxiety on other family members, work colleagues, healthcare professionals and his mood.
Help for Health Anxiety
Changing behaviours and challenging unhelpful thinking styles is not always easy but it is much easier when you are supported by a healthcare professional, such as a psychotherapist. The good news is, Cognitive behavioural therapy can help people with Health Anxiety identify vicious cycles and develop strategies to help them implement change. CBT will help increase the belief that you can cope in a threatening situation, such as the one we are facing now, and decrease all the behaviours that reduce your anxiety SHORT-TERM but maintain and increase it long-term.
More helpful behaviours
Stop asking for reassurance from love-ones – they are going to tell you what they think you want to hear and the more you do it, the more you will need to do it.
Stop researching your symptoms on the internet – if you have a persistent problem that you think requires medical attention, ask a medical professional not your laptop!
Have a break from social media. Watch the news every now and then but try not to get hooked on every little development.
Sort out the problems that you can deal with at the moment. If you feel yourself getting drawn into ‘what if?’ future scenarios. STOP! Go and find something else to do – I have been painting my kitchen (just a warning to my husband before he gets home!)
Do a crossword puzzle, try some relaxation techniques (plenty of apps) do some exercise, yoga, go for a walk, resume a hobby…tidy out that spare room that has been needing it for weeks!
Most importantly, as horrible as the current situation is, it will get better. This is temporary.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you feel you need regular support with health anxiety, find an accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. The BABCP website has more details about how to find one in your area. Many of us are offering Skype or similar sessions at the moment to limit close contact. If you would like to discuss this, do get in touch.