What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is becoming more and more common as we have 24/7 access to Google, WebMD, and disease forums, but what is health anxiety and how do you know you have it? Health anxiety, broadly, is an over-attention to bodily symptoms that causes distress and difficulty going about your day-to-day life.
We all get anxious about our bodies from time to time. Who hasn’t Googled or WebMD-ed a few symptoms late at night and decided that they have a massive brain tumor and will obviously be dead by morning? (Okay, maybe that’s just me.) Some concern about one’s health is normal and even healthy, and each and every one of us can be prone to occasional freak-outs about nothing. However, when worries about your health are constantly on your mind and keep you from doing what you want to do, that’s when you might have crossed the line into health anxiety.
What Can You Do About Health Anxiety?
Thankfully, there is a lot you can do about it. Some of these things you can do yourself, and some require the assistance of a professional. These tips can help even if you don’t have full-blown health anxiety, but you have a tendency toward anxiety concerning your health.
Break up with Google and WebMD (For Now)
Googling your symptoms or checking WebMD can be very helpful in some cases. For some people, it’s reassuring to know that what they are experiencing is normal and they can look at the information they get and see that there is a very small chance that it’s something terrible. The internet can sometimes help you know whether you need to go to the doctor for your cold or ride it out.
However, if you have a tendency toward health anxiety, absolutely do not google your symptoms or go on that WebMD symptom checker, because you have (temporarily) lost the ability to be reassured by this information. If you’re not sure if that’s true, think back to the last time you checked one of those sources. Was it helpful, or did it make you more worried?
But, you might protest, what should I do if I think I have a life-threatening disease and it’s 1:00 am and I might be dead before morning? Good question. Sometimes you can enlist help from another person while you work on redeveloping your ability to accurately interpret the information you get from the internet. Maybe you have a friend or family member who can Google or WebMD your symptoms for you and let you know only the most likely, least-threatening information.
Get More Information About Your Diagnosis or Health from Reputable Sources
Or, if you are really concerned about the symptom, use the nurse line through your insurance company or primary care provider instead of going online. Nurses are fantastic people, and they know a ton! They are trained to discern whether what you are experiencing is an emergency or not. They can tell you whether you need to make an appointment, go straight to the Emergency Department, or wait it out, which is really all the information you need. While you are working on becoming more calm about your health, often less information is more.
Except when it isn’t. Sometimes more information is truly helpful. If you know you have a certain disease or condition that is the source of many of your worries, making an appointment with your doctor to discuss whether you need to be worried about certain symptoms can be very helpful. Be mindful of the things that worry you and make a list prior to your appointment. Be honest with your doctor about how you are feeling about these symptoms. Most of the time, your doctor can reassure you that the things you are worried about are not a problem or normal for your condition and let you know what reasonable precautions you need to take. Or, he or she will let you know that these sensations you are concerned about do not need to affect your actions.
Don’t Read Your Prescription Insert
Some people worry a lot about side effects of medications. If this is you, try not reading the insert that comes with your prescription. Instead, wait until you experience something unusual, and if it is truly bothersome, call your pharmacist or prescriber and let them know. They can help you determine whether it is due to the medication or not, and you do not have to read about all of the things that could possibly come up when you take a medication. The great thing about your body is that it truly does let you know in quite obvious ways when something is really wrong, so you need not worry about “missing” a symptom that would mean the medication is not right for you.
Psychotherapy for Health Anxiety
These strategies that I describe above can be difficult to implement on your own. It has probably taken you quite some time to develop the level of anxiety you have about your health, and learning a different way to approach your thoughts and behaviors can be hard to do alone. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), we look at how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors interact, and we work on skills to help you change the way you think and act in order to change the way you feel.
You might also find that there is more to your health anxiety than a straightforward over-assessment of threat. Sometimes there is an event that kicked off the health anxiety like a traumatic illness or event in oneself or a loved one. Processing these events can be enormously helpful in reducing health anxiety. Sometimes there is a component of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in health anxiety, and addressing it via clinical hypnosis, Prolonged Exposure therapy or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be beneficial. The ultimate goal in psychotherapy for health anxiety will be to learn to tolerate sensations in your body and relearn how to accurately assess the threat that symptoms pose.
So, the next time you are tempted to try to figure out which fatal disease you will be dying of in the next 24 hours, remember to take a step back and reconsider whether your actions will really be helpful to you. If this is hard for you, give me a call and let’s talk.
About the Author
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist who offers counseling for adults with PTSD, trauma symptoms, and chronic pain in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also works with individuals via remote, online counseling throughout the state of Minnesota. You can schedule an appointment and learn more about Erin’s Twin Cities therapy practice at erinbdlicsw.com, or reach Erin by phone at 651-998-8991.