Help! I Can’t Stop Worrying About Getting Sick

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I’m a 27-year-old dental student with no serious medical issues other than sports injuries. Over the past few years, I have developed these thoughts about getting/being sick. I am constantly paying attention to my body. Any little thing I notice, I freak out. I am frequently going to the doctor for one thing after another and can’t seem to control my brain immediately thinking the worst. And every time I go, I am perfectly healthy.

I also think that because I am believing in these fake ailments, it’s causing my brain to create symptoms! It’s frustrating because I don’t know how to stop feeling like this even though I know it’s mostly in my head. At this point, my girlfriend and family are getting sick of me asking things like “This isn’t cancer, right?” or “I’m going to be okay, right? It’s not going to kill me or anything?”

My main question is why am I always thinking of the worst-case scenario with my health? Why can’t I just have a sore throat and think “I must have a cold” instead of “I must have a rare infection that’s going to eventually kill me”? Any help would be awesome because as of now I feel myself worrying about being sick more than actually enjoying my life. Thank you. —Worried Sick

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Dear Worried Sick,

You’ve asked a great question, and you are not alone in asking it: Why do you seem to always think of the worst-case scenario when it comes to your health, and what can you do differently so you are not immediately thinking the worst? The answer to this question is very much tied to understanding what may be behind this in the first place.

How you describe your concerns is consistent with what is conceptualized in the DSM-5 (the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) as illness anxiety, as well as what prior to this would have been considered hypochondriasis (debilitating worry about having a serious illness). Regardless, please know there are things you can do to keep the worry from getting the better of you.

It’s worth stating this about anxiety more generally: some people are more prone to either anxiety or hypervigilance (heightened awareness about small sensations or possible threats, in this case health-related symptoms) than others. This can happen for any number of reasons, and it’s okay if you tend to be that way. What you are doing, essentially, is making sense of your experiences and protecting yourself from perceived threats of danger. While this can be adaptive—as doing so can tune you in to something that is wrong—it may become a problem when your interpretations are in overdrive. Furthermore, when you worry excessively, there is a negative filter operating on your thoughts which further intensifies and reinforces the worry.

You can learn how to modify your thoughts through psychotherapy. By seeking help for this, you can learn and practice skills to help you reduce hypervigilance and significantly reduce the tendency to immediately think the worst.

The bottom line is thoughts are powerful. When we experience a symptom such as pain, fatigue, or bloating, many people try to better understand and make sense of the experience, and depending on our thoughts, this may work for us or it may signal our thoughts are in overdrive. Additionally, constantly paying attention to bodily symptoms—and perhaps even creating symptoms, as you indicated—is a pattern worth changing. When we think the worst, this sends us down a dark path leading to debilitating anxiety. Furthermore, the way we think significantly affects the way we feel. So it makes sense that if we are thinking the worst about our health, we will feel bad. We are focusing on even the slightest discomfort or sensation and then feeling distressed over the worry around what it could mean. Clearly, you have realized that health-related anxiety or worry can become extremely uncomfortable.

By modifying the thoughts you have around bodily sensations, you can change your level of comfort. You will, in fact, be able to do just as you want—to be able to enjoy your life. Imagine how powerful a small shift in a thought can be. Instead of “This means I have a rare infection that will kill me,” try something else. Perhaps, “It is possible this is something that warrants medical attention, but it is also possible this will go away on its own.” You can learn how to modify your thoughts through psychotherapy. By seeking help for this, you can learn and practice skills to help you reduce hypervigilance and significantly reduce the tendency to immediately think the worst.

Here are some other tips that are important to consider:

  • Beware of conducting your own health-related research. Many individuals who experience illness anxiety find they spend a lot of time online researching suspected conditions or symptoms. I suspect you know this already, being a dental student, but sometimes reading about things that “could” happen serves as an unnecessary trigger for anxiety. Be mindful of the amount of time you spend conducting such research, as well as how you feel while reading information (especially compared to times when you are not reading about symptoms). I suspect such information may spike anxiety in you. If so, consider whether this is useful for you to do.
  • Consider new ways of coping and reframing. You mentioned you gather that the people close to you are already getting annoyed by you regularly seeking reassurance. This is one mechanism you have developed as a pattern to manage anxiety. Another is to frequently make medical appointments for these symptoms, which is essentially doing the same thing. You want reassurance that everything is okay. Because neither of these practices is sustainable in the long run, you’ll have to learn additional coping and reframing skills so you can adequately assess when it may be appropriate to seek reassurance.
  • Implement relaxation as a regular practice. What usually helps you reduce anxiety? Finding a healthy outlet for stress and anxiety can be a useful tool to have at your disposal, regardless of the stressors you face.

Glad you’ve reached out!

Best wishes,

Marni Amsellem, PhD

Marni Amsellem
Marni Amsellem, PhD, is a licensed psychologist. She maintains a part-time private practice in New York and Connecticut specializing in clinical health psychology, coping with illness, and adjustment to life transitions. Additionally, she is an interventionist and research consultant with hospitals, organizations, and corporations, both locally and nationally, involved with research investigating the role of behavior, environment, and individual differences in multiple aspects of health and decision-making.
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  • Caro

    Caro

    July 3rd, 2017 at 2:20 PM

    Well my mom always told me that I was being a hypochondriac so I was afraid as all get out to even tell her at all if anything hurt. So I guess i have a hard time relating because mine was more of a fear of letting on that I was anything less that healthy.

  • Helen J

    Helen J

    July 15th, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    Worrying all of the time has a way of tearing down the body’s own natural immune system. If you spend so much of that time worrying then there is a very good chance that this is going to break down your own natural ability to fight off any sickness and you are going to be more likely to experience symptoms of illness quite a bit.
    There comes a time when it has to become possible for your own mental and physical well being that you have to learn to let things go. It may not be easy but life will always have trials and tribulations. It is up to you how you choose to handle those.

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