by Joel Schmidt, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, in Tampa, FL
Overcoming Health Anxiety: Things You Should Stop Doing (and Some You Should Start)
Are you constantly worried about your health? Does even the slightest new and unusual bodily sensation or symptom have you running to the doctor, sure that it must be something serious? Are you often worried that, even though you’re being told by medical professionals that everything is okay, something undetected and undiagnosed is growing inside of you and slowly killing you? Do you find yourself checking stuff a lot — such as your heart rate or different parts of your body — looking for reassurance that nothing is wrong? Are you spending a good deal of time googling symptoms and researching medical conditions that you may or may not have? If so, you’re probably dealing with disordered health anxiety: a health-focused anxiety that can cause a good deal of distress and an endless cycle of worry.
Although it’s never a bad idea to check in with the doctor every so often (get that annual physical!) or to do health screenings as recommended, excessive checking and reassurance-seeking may be making your anxiety worse instead of providing the much-desired comfort you’re hoping to gain from some of your behaviors.
What to Stop Doing
Here are four things you should stop doing (or at least do less of) if you have health anxiety, followed by some healthier ways of coping.
1. Stop googling symptoms.
We google symptoms to seek reassurance, not realizing that this kind of reassurance-seeking is actually increasing and reinforcing our anxiety.
2. Stop obsessing over your fitness watch.
If you have a Fitbit, Apple watch, or any other health tracking wrist device, ditch it if you find yourself constantly checking different measures such as your heart rate, heart rate variability, or ECG results. Like googling symptoms, this sort of behavior keeps us too internally focused and increases the anxiety surrounding health — and only provides very short-term comfort and reassurance.
3. Pay attention to your other checking and reassurance-seeking behaviors and limit them also.
Common checking behaviors include checking the mirror for discoloration of the skin or eyes, looking for new moles or bumps, weighing in or measuring different parts of the body, monitoring your pulse or blood pressure, asking family members or health professionals about your symptoms, and posting questions online for opinions about the health issues you have or suspect you have. Being aware of your body and checking for anything out of the ordinary can be smart and healthy when done as the medical community recommends, but the kind of checking that often comes along with health anxiety is generally excessive and unnecessary.
4. Stop interpreting every new and unusual bodily symptom as a sign of danger.
Our bodies do weird things. Everyone experiences odd pains and sensations every once in a while. It’s normal, and they usually come and go. The average person experiences these things as well but isn’t as internally focused and doesn’t pay the same level of attention to them.
It’s not easy to stop doing these things. It will be uncomfortable, especially at first. What you’ll likely find over time, though, is that stopping these things will liberate you from the prison that health anxiety can create that prevents you from living your life fully.
What to Start Doing
It’s best to replace old habits with new ones. Here are some things you should do instead of the four behaviors above.
1. Check in with your doctor every once in a while.
Get to the doctor to rule out any true medical concerns if you’ve been avoiding this, get your annual physical, do the recommended screenings, and follow through on your doctor’s recommendations. The key here, though, is to follow what your doctor recommends and not what your anxiety dictates. Certainly seek medical help if you suspect something serious, but try to recognize when what you’re doing is just looking for short-term relief and reassurance. The comfort is fleeting and soon enough you’ll be on to the next thing.
2. Talk to a therapist.
Find a therapist that specializes in anxiety disorders – specifically one with experience working with health anxiety. A therapist can help you better understand your health anxiety and teach you some healthier coping mechanisms for dealing with it. They’ll also help you gain insight about how you got here and help you better recognize the thoughts and behaviors that are contributing to your anxiety. Overcoming health anxiety takes work, but a therapist can help you make strides.
3. Recognize that some health anxiety is normal.
As humans, we all have some worry and concern surrounding our health and well-being. When we are struggling with health anxiety, though, our threat detection system is just a little more heightened than it needs to be. This can lead to nonstop false alarms.
4. Be open to the idea of tolerating and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty.
The only thing that would likely bring your health anxiety to zero would be knowing that your risk of experiencing future health-related issues is zero — and that’s just not going to happen. As you start to accept and tolerate some risk above zero, you’ll find that you also start to shift out of anxious thinking and into the kind of life you really want to live.
5. Remember how many times you’ve been wrong about your anxious thoughts.
“What ifs” are at the core of health anxiety — or any other anxiety for that matter. “What if this headache is a tumor growing in my brain?” “What if this stomachache is a sign of something really serious?” “What if this pain in my leg is a deadly blood clot?” How many times have you found yourself having these anxious thoughts and questions? And how many times have you been wrong about those worst-case assumptions? Since you’re reading this, you’ve probably been wrong about most, if not all of them. Let that fact sink in.
6. Shift your focus outward.
One of the hallmarks of health anxiety is an overly strong internal focus. When you notice yourself scanning your body or engaging with and entertaining anxious thoughts, try to shift from an internal to a more outward focus. Find something to do. Call a friend, go for a walk, read a book, and get engaged with the world.
Overcoming Health Anxiety
Living with health anxiety can feel like a rollercoaster. Following this advice will help you get off that ride and free you up to enjoy and make the most of your life. Connect with a therapist who understands what you’re dealing with and start making progress.
© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joel Schmidt, MA, Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Tampa, FL
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