Health anxiety (more known as illness anxiety disorder) can be tricky, because from one side there are cases when you will end up needing to go see a doctor aka get help, but from the other very often it's simply something that we should learn to recognize as a mental health issue, addressing it pretty much the same way as any other type of anxiety.
I personally think that my health anxiety got much worse with the rise of Google. Yes, now we have these amazing sources of information, but just like with anything else in life, too much of a good thing can be bad. If you are dealing with health anxiety, you know how that goes, and how quickly it escalates. It starts with a headache and ends with brain cancer. The reason why it happens is because many actual illnesses have same or similar symptoms as normal (nothing serious), even if discomforting, body sensations. Like headache sometimes can be caused by bad weather, and stomach may hurt cos we ate something "wrong".
Despite sometimes absurdity of our thoughts, it doesn't mean that health anxiety is not a part of our mental illness and should not be taken seriously. It is an actual disorder, unlike many of our other symptoms.
My brain is prone to worry, and I have been having health anxiety ever since I was a kid. That strong fear to be seriously ill is rooted in the way how my mom perceived my illnesses. She would make a drama each time I got a cold, and she would constantly warn me about possibilities to injure myself and get sick whenever I went out. As a result I tend to catastrophize even minor symptoms.
So, what do I do to stop worry?
There are a few ways how I tackle health anxiety. Let's explore:
1. I learn to ignore my symptoms
It's quite obvious that catastrophizing makes anxiety worse, but what we often don't realize is that by paying attention to every single discomfort we experience, we give anxiety more power and control over our daily lives. What I started to do was I stopped googling my symptoms. Of course, I would still do it from time to time, but more often I try to leave my discomfort as it is. Even if I take a medication (like Tylenol for my headache), I stop myself from making a big deal of it by saying: it is just a headache, nothing serious. Now, it might not work in the beginning, but don't get discouraged, eventually it should. It's important to understand that the purpose of this practice is not to eliminate discomfort necessarily, but to avoid escalating anxiety and worry.
2. I don't go to doctors often
It took me a while to realize that going to doctors every time I feel something is wrong is not only damaging to my wallet, but it also feeds my anxiety. By giving it attention, I sort of confirm that something is indeed wrong, and "I need help". I think what helps is breaking this cycle by saying: "I will go if it gets worse within a next week or so" (usually it doesn't).
It's not to say, that going to doctors is a bad idea. Many times, it's much better than asking doctor Google. I used to go to doctors a lot and by now am pretty aware of what is going on with my body: areas that are problematic, and things that I don't need to even think about.
3. I take a good care of my physical health
Now, this one might not be for everyone, especially if you tend to get obsessive over healthy lifestyle. I can be, so it took me a while to adopt a simpler approach "do your best". Honestly, I believe, there are not so many "health rules" that we should follow, and the rest is not in our control. On my Instagram account I talk a lot about healthy eating, but also that I am not overly strict with myself. Yes, there is a lot of scientific information that we find online, that tells us that this or that is good or bad for us. But research is a process, new information pops up every day, it doesn't mean that we should take every bit of it seriously in order to "optimize" our health. We can try to do our best based on the research that has been checked and proven to be true, and many times simply follow our intuition.
With this being said, I try to follow basic health advice: eat more "healthy" foods (veggies and fruit), exercise regularly, work on my sleep schedule. I do not stress over my "mistakes". Again, "do your best" - is my mantra.
What it does, it gives me a somewhat control over my health, that is important for people who have anxiety.
4. I do things that make me anxious
Illness anxiety disorder can be very debilitating since the fear of being injured or getting sick is always there. It can stop us from doing things we would do otherwise, therefore I highly recommend doing whatever it is that you want to do despite fear.
Engaging in any sport, I always worry something will happen to me, however I do it anyway, because I don't want anxiety to control my life. It can be challenging, but the more I do things and even experience discomfort associated with it, the more I am able to actually see that it's overall safe, it's nothing too dangerous.
5. I try to address other underlying issues
Sometimes health anxiety "helps" us avoid emotions that we don't want to process. This one is probably the hardest for me, because resolving inner conflicts or addressing areas in my life that are probably more concerning than my body sensations can be a challenge, but I am working on it constantly.
That's why therapy can be very helpful, or even just talking to someone, who is able to be honest with me and really help me tackle those problematic areas I am trying to avoid.
There you are - my 5 tips on how to deal with health anxiety. I hope this post was helpful. Let me know if you are dealing with health anxiety and what you find helpful. Until next time on Pillows&Trees.