What is health anxiety?
It is normal and beneficial to have a certain level of concern for our health. It’s what inspires us to eat well, give up unhealthy habits like smoking, be aware of any changes in our body and go to the doctors when things don’t feel right. However, worrying about your health becomes problematic when the anxiety begins to have an impact on your day to day life, even when any real illnesses or health issues have been ruled out.
How do I know if I have health anxiety?
If you find your daily life is becoming affected by concerns over your health, despite no medical reason, then you may well be dealing with health anxiety. As with other mental health issues, it can be hard to know for sure whether you are struggling with health anxiety. Here are some common physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms.
- Your body: You may experience common anxiety symptoms such as changes in heart rate, a tight chest, changes in breathing, sweating, muscle tension, stomach ache, nausea, restlessness, twitchy, odd physical sensations.
- Your feelings: Anxious, nervous, tired, unwell, detached, frustrated, frightened, worried, a feeling of dread, stressed.
- Your thoughts: Always thinking about your health, imagining the worst, thinking you may have been misdiagnosed, believing you are seriously ill, always worrying about symptoms, thinking if you don’t worry about your health you’ll become ill, thinking you may have missed symptoms, picturing what life would be like if you were diagnosed with an illness, thinking you have new symptoms.
- Your behaviour: Keep visiting doctors or hospitals, checking symptoms online or in books, act as though you are ill such as staying at home or avoiding exercise, avoid information about illness such as hospital TV shows, constantly check your body for lumps or changes, ask your friends and family for reassurance.
Do you regularly experience any of these symptoms? Then you may well be suffering from health anxiety.
What causes health anxiety?
People develop health anxiety for all manner of reasons. It may be that you or someone close to you experienced a period of ill health in the past, or perhaps you or someone you know was affected by symptoms that went unnoticed or misdiagnosed. It could also be that you have been experiencing stress or depression which can produce some worrying physical symptoms.
It is easy to get caught up in a vicious circle of health anxiety. Once the anxiety has been triggered, such as by a family member becoming ill or seeing some information about illness online, you’ll experience a feeling of tension or worry. This will then trigger other behaviours, such as checking your body for symptoms or asking your family for reassurance, as well as worrying thoughts such as ‘I’ve got cancer’ or ‘I’m going to have a heart attack’. This worry and fear can then cause symptoms of anxiety such as chest pains or headaches which can be frightening and can further add to your fear that something is medically wrong. Therefore, you begin to worry more… and so the vicious circle continues!
Understanding how health anxiety is caused and how it affects us is the first step in learning how to tackle it and break the vicious circle.