Health Anxiety

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What is it and how to get over it.

As she stares at the ceiling, trying to fall asleep, Alex obsesses on one particular statement from his doctor, “Cancer tumours can grow at any time. Come back in six months if you’re concerned.”   He tosses and turns, “Why did he tell me that? If there was nothing wrong, why would he say come back in six months?”  More questions blaze through his mind, “Why do I keep getting headaches and dizziness? What if the doctors missed out on something? Why did he tell me to come back if there’s nothing wrong?”  Alex feels so anxious he gets out of bed and searches Google for answers.  As he rereads the same articles about symptoms of brain cancer he begins to feel lightheaded.  “Why do I keep feeling this way? Do I really have brain cancer? Is this really happening to me?”  

 

The good news is, Alex does not have brain cancer or a brain tumour.  Alex suffers from health anxiety.  There are two types of health anxieties:

  • Somatic Symptom Disorder;  and

  • Illness Anxiety Disorder, formally known as hypochondriasis. 

 

Many people with health anxiety are often incapable of functioning or enjoying life due to their fears and obsessive preoccupations.   They are constantly ‘tuned’ into their bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat), physical oddities (skin blemishes), and physical discomfort (headaches, stomach aches, light-headedness). They might worry about a specific organ (brain, heart) or a disease they heard about on the news or at work (MS, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s).  They are preoccupied with the belief that they have, or are in danger of contracting, a serious disease. Many will pursue doctors and tests repeatedly for reassurance but are usually reluctant to seek mental health treatment since they believe their condition is real and medically based.   

Why does health anxiety continue in spite of reassurance from doctors?

While some refuse to be examined by their doctor or undergo a medical test out of fear of discovering the worst, seeking reassurance from doctors, insisting on repeated medical tests, and visits to the ER and urgent care, are more common in health anxiety. Being reassured by the doctor that there is no serious medical illness brings relief – for a brief period of time.   The vicious cycle quickly restarts as new thoughts and physical sensation surface, followed by interpretations of danger, anxiety, and more visits to doctors to resolve the ambiguity. And then all over again.  

The False Alarm

Intruder alarms are usually set-off by a break in but imagine how challenging it would be if the sounder blared each time a bird flew by.  The alarm system would be misinterpreting innocent birds as dangerous intruders. 
With health anxiety there is the misinterpretation of discomfort and normal bodily functions as dangerous. The body is very active. Healthy human bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, unexpected, and unwanted, but are definitely not dangerous. 

Normal sensations in the body that can produce fear and worry include changes in visual acuity, heart rate, blood pressure, saliva levels, depth of breathing, digestion, balance, and muscle tone, just to name a few.  These are normal and harmless bodily changes, but when a person believes they are symptoms of a terrible illness, it causes an irrational fear which we know as anxiety.  The sensations are real, but the beliefs are false.

Why some people tend to misinterpret sensations in their body and overestimate danger?  

Sometimes misinterpretation is due to assumptions regarding an illness. For example, “My aunt died of cancer. It’s only a matter of time until I get it.”  Or, “viruses spread easily. People in Africa are dying of HIV. It could easily spread to Europe.”   People with health anxiety might have strict definitions of what they consider good health, perhaps believing that any discomfort whatsoever means horrific illness. 

 

Anxiety is our body’s protective mechanism and continuously scanning the body for an illness seems like the right thing to do to protect ourselves. However, when we are preoccupied with something, we tend to notice it. Much more than it warrants.  Last month when I was looking to purchase a new mobile phone, I suddenly began to notice every mobile phone people used; the make, model, and the type of cover.  Previously, I didn’t pay attention.  Looking for symptoms makes you notice subtle sensations you might otherwise be unaware of or ignore. When you become preoccupied with bodily sensations, those sensations become amplified and persistent. 

This is when things can get sticky.  

Each scan of the body produces uncertainty and doubt, giving the imagination opportunity to become very creative.  As you imagine the worst, your body’s alarm system sounds off in the form of symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, sweatiness, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, jitters, tingling, light-headedness, nausea, stomach discomfort, headaches, etc.) giving your imagination additional fuel to generate fictitious creations.   The symptoms are real. The thoughts are false. 

Stress management coaching as an effective treatment

Since it is possible to suffer with anxiety together with a serious medical condition, medical problems must be ruled out with a thorough physical test. Once medical condition has been ruled out, stress management coaching is a very effective treatment for any form of anxiety including health related anxiety.

The Stress Management model focuses on our cognition, the way we think, and our behaviours, the way we act. The main concept behind it is that our thoughts about a situation (the fear) effect how we feel (afraid and anxious) and how we behave (scanning the body, going to the doctor, searching Google). We tend to assign meaning to specific situations (tingling means we have a tumour).  It’s not the actual situation causing our anxiety, but the interpretation – accurate or not. And, when you have anxiety, you give your thoughts a lot of meaning, and thus, a lot of power.  

Stress management techniques aims to help you overcome fears by correcting irrational thoughts and changing problematic behaviours.  By acquiring a certain mindset, you can learn to approach anxious situations differently and learn to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. Health anxiety can be overcome with the help of a skilled stress anxiety specialist.  For more details contact me.

This article is not intended to substitute informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your healthcare professional before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.

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