Anxiety comes in many forms, and is as unique to the person experiencing it as the ways that it can manifest. One of these ways is around our physical health. It is normal to be concerned about your health, but if it is to an excessive and obsessive degree, then it becomes health anxiety.
We live in a culture that makes it hard not to become overly concerned with our health––from the advertisements of perfect-looking people promoting some new anti-aging supplement, to the constant barrage of marketed health food products and fitness programs, and the unachievable standards of beauty and youth portrayed on social media––you are definitely not alone if you are suffering from health anxiety. In fact, 4-5% of people are affected by it.
Not only does our culture perpetuate health anxiety, but of course there is the elephant in the room––the Covid pandemic. So many of us who may not have been anxious about health before are now incredibly fearful of contracting this deadly virus, or perhaps you have contracted it and now are fearful of lasting effects. Pretty much everyone has been touched by the pandemic in some way, so if your health anxiety has developed during the pandemic, you are certainly not alone.
So, what are some signs that you may be experiencing health anxiety?
Signs of Health Anxiety
You probably already know if you have health anxiety, because health is all you think about. However, if you are unsure if your fears are reasonable or not, here are a few signs that you may have an actual anxiety condition:
Constantly worrying about developing a disease
Worrying that little aches and pains may be signs of a bigger issue
Constantly going to the doctor OR not going at all for fear of what they may diagnose you with
Constantly checking your body or getting tests done
Talking about your health or illness all the time
Constantly googling symptoms
These signs relate to individuals who may or may not actually have a disease or health condition (formerly known as hypochondria). There is a related disorder called somatic symptom disorder, in which an individual hyper-focuses on distressing physical symptoms, which then causes anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health disorders.
The issue is not single occurrences of the behaviors above (for example, going to the doctor when you need to or mentioning your health problems here and there), but rather the repeated, excessive behaviors that signal an anxiety problem. But don’t fret if you find yourself relating to some or all of these signs––there are many ways to get better and find the freedom you deserve.
Coping With Health Anxiety
With intentional effort and good support, you do not need to suffer from health anxiety any longer. Here are some ways you can start working towards a worry-free future:
Focus on What You Can Control
Health anxiety usually centers around what is out of our control: environmental factors, disease, genetics…etc. You may feel helpless because there truly is nothing you can do about those things, which may fuel your anxiety. However, if you shift your focus to what you can control, it can make a huge difference––and you may find that there is more that you can control than you thought.
For example, you can change your diet to make sure you are eating healthfully, and exercise and get outside more. These three changes alone can have a big impact. Take time to make a list of things you can start doing today to take charge of your health, and then start doing them!
Learn and Practice Calming Skills
Since the root of your problems is anxiety and not the health problems themselves, it is critical that you learn how to address your anxiety by learning soothing skills. There are many things you can do to calm yourself, and it comes down to personal preference. Some people find prayer and meditation to bring them great relief; others love yoga and other physical practices. Maybe you learn the art of breathing.
Whatever method you choose, stick with it and make it a daily practice in your life. It can be five or fifty-five minutes of your day––just make it sustainable and something you look forward to doing every day. Making a daily habit of calming yourself can dramatically reduce your anxiety.
Focus on Facts
Anxiety is not rooted in reality. The fears that play over and over in your head are simply that––fears of what could happen. They have not happened, and therefore are not true. Anxiety lies to us, so we need to fight back with the facts. Look at what is true about your health. If your doctor says you are fine and your labs look normal, trust them! Unless you have substantial evidence that your health is seriously compromised or you are truly feeling unwell despite normal labs, go off on the basis that you are okay.
This is not condoning gaslighting, but rather a mindset shift to get you focused on the good instead of the bad. And there is significant research that a positive attitude can positively affect our physical health too!
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), you need to find people that can support you in your journey––not people who will shame you or make you feel bad for being anxious, but those who want to see you get better and will help you get there. There may be support groups you can join for people who are dealing with health anxiety, or perhaps a church community or small group.
You can also reach out to a therapist if it begins to feel too overwhelming to manage, even with support. There are so many people who want to see you thrive, so don’t let your anxiety win! Reach out and get the help you need.
With time and effort, you can overcome your health anxiety. It may be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back process, but if you are persistent in using the coping mechanisms and seeking support, you will see results and be able to live the life of freedom that you were made for.