Do you know the warning signs of health anxiety?

Find out how to stop worrying about your health all the time

We live in an increasingly busy world, and so it comes as no surprise that we are strongly encouraged to look after our health. Adopting a regular exercise routine, a good sleep routine and eating a nutritious diet are just a few of the suggestions that are recommended through mainstream media, social media and by medical professions.

For some people, health becomes an obsession – whether it be excessively exercising or dieting to stay ‘healthy’ or constantly worrying that something is wrong. Worrying about health, or health anxiety, has become even more common. With “Dr Google” at our fingertips it is now easier than ever to get information about health conditions and symptoms and come up with a diagnosis all on our own- with the absence of any specialised medical input.

But is it helpful to Google everything? And more importantly, are you getting the correct information? If not, you could be tricked into believing you have cancer, heart disease or some other serious health condition- when you don’t. If this sounds like you, then please read on to find out how to stop worrying about your health.

What are the symptoms of health anxiety?

While there isn’t a specific diagnosis for “health anxiety’ there are several psychological conditions (somatic symptom disorder, illness anxiety disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, panic disorder or major depressive disorder) that health anxiety may be diagnosed and treated under.

A rather new condition known as illness anxiety disorder is now used interchangeably with generalised anxiety disorder or panic disorder to explain when a person presents with high health anxiety but none or minimal physical symptoms. Let’s not get too caught up in the technical aspects of a diagnosis, as it’s something that will be assessed based on your overall symptoms and circumstances by a medical professional or experienced psychologist.

Symptoms of health anxiety

  • You may have a preoccupation with having or developing a serious health condition
  • You don’t have any physical symptoms or they are only mild (for example a headache)
  • If there is a current medical condition or a high risk of developing one (e.g. strong family history of a particular illness) the worry is excessive
  • Overall high anxiety about health in general and you are easily concerned about health symptoms
  • You may obsessively check your body for signs of illness
  • You may interpret mild symptoms (a headache) for a serious illness (brain tumour)
  • You may seek constant reassurance from others, but continue to worry even when you are given the all clear
  • You are constantly Googling symptoms and diagnosing yourself with a serious illness

People who are excessively worried about health may engage in care-seeking behaviour (frequenting medical centres or hospitals, undergoing tests and procedures) or care-avoidant behaviour (rarely seeking medical care).

Health anxiety (or related diagnoses) are unlikely to be made if the excessive worry about health has been present for less than six months.

When health anxiety is the ‘real’ health problem

Lisa is a forty-nine year old single woman with two children aged twenty and twenty-three who moved out of home one year ago. Over the past six months, as her fiftieth birthday approaches, Lisa has become increasingly anxious about her health. She regularly frequents her GP, complaining of digestive problems (such as bloating and wind) and mild stomach (“period-like”) pains. Given her family history of ovarian cancer, her doctor has ordered the appropriate tests and has ruled out any sign of ovarian cancer or other medical condition. Lisa, on the other hand, constantly thinks about her symptoms and fears they are a sign of a serious illness, and she does not feel reassured even when her doctor has given her the all clear. Lisa’s mother died from ovarian cancer at age fifty.

One of the problems with health anxiety, is the misinterpretation of mild symptoms that we may all have from time to time (for example a headache, upset stomach or nausea) as a serious physical illness. For people who have persistent anxiety (health related or otherwise), the anxiety can actually create physiological symptoms (for example digestive problems, appetite changes, headaches, dizziness, nausea etc.). If you are worried about your health all the time, then you may discover you have symptoms like this too.

When health anxiety goes untreated, it can have an impact on your physical and psychological wellbeing. It can also be associated with other anxiety or mood disorders (for example major depressive disorder) and can have an impact on your overall functioning. It may affect your occupational or educational commitments, your parenting role or your relationship with your partner, family or friends. When you become completely consumed by something such as worries about your health then you will spend most of your time caught up in the worry (frequently looking up symptoms online, reading articles, checking your body for signs of illness or frequently attending medical appointments) rather than being present with your loved ones. Your family and friends may also become frustrated with your health worries too as you are likely to repeatedly seek reassurance from them.

Thankfully, psychological help for health anxiety is available. If you are feeling concerned about how much you worry about your health, or someone else has brought it to your attention (friends, family or your GP) then it may warrant psychological support to help you get the anxiety symptoms under control.

Health anxiety counselling

Tips to help you stop worrying about your health

  1. Stop Googling everything! See a medical professional about your concerns and if you do happen to have a medical condition (or risk of developing one) then ensure you access credible sources such as journal articles or health websites or ask your health professional for a list of resources.
  2. Deep breathing. If you notice something concerning about your body (e.g. a headache, stomach pain etc.) and feel the urge to go online or call a friend or book in to see your local doctor, pause first. Take a deep breath in and then exhale. Do this ten times until you notice your body relaxing (and those physical panic symptoms begin to alleviate). When the physical symptoms of anxiety are under better control then it clears your mind to think rationally. Now that you’re feeling calm. Ask yourself, is this something I should really be worried about?
  3. Challenge your thoughts. Rather than reacting to your worrying thoughts, challenge them. Use the deep breathing exercise above and then think of three things that refute your initial hypothesis. For example, if you have a headache and you instantly believe you have a brain tumour you may challenge this worry with these three thoughts:
    1. I have a headache because I’m dehydrated and I need more water.
    2. I have a headache because I’ve been feeling stressed about work today.
    3. I have a headache because I wasn’t wearing my glasses today

If you find that you struggle to slow down and challenge your thoughts, then you may benefit from the help of a professional.

What is  health anxiety counselling?

Health anxiety is a treatable condition. An experienced psychologist can help you learn how to stop worrying about your health so that it no longer interferes with your relationships and negatively impacts your life.

Psychologists draw on various strategies to help people overcome anxiety, but cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) is the most common form of treatment.

The aim of psychological intervention is to help you identify your triggers (and perhaps understand where they originated from), address negative thinking patterns and to develop useful strategies to minimise physiological anxiety symptoms (such as rapid heart rate or difficulties breathing). An experienced psychologist will teach you relaxation techniques, thought-challenging strategies and work towards an overall improved emotional and physical wellbeing.

Health Anxiety Counselling Brisbane

At Ahead Psychology, we have experienced Senior Psychologists who work with people who have anxiety disorders. Call Ahead Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3352 3577 or send us a message.