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Managing Health Anxiety

Top Tips for Managing Health Anxiety

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety, also known as hypochondria, is a type of anxiety in which you spend an excessive amount of time worrying that you’re ill, or about to get ill, to the point that it starts to take over your life (NHS). However, there are ways to avoid this by managing health anxiety and following the below tips, or by seeking help through counselling.

If you experience health anxiety you might obsess over your health, mistaking normal bodily functions as reasons for concern. You may visit your GP frequently to seek reassurance that you are not ill. You might also find yourself spending large amounts of time reading about your symptoms or possible conditions. The more you get preoccupied with sensations in your body the more they become amplified and last longer. This creates an internal feedback loop with the imagination getting creative and your thoughts assuming the worst.

How to Recognise Health Anxiety

You may be experiencing health anxiety if you:

  • Constantly worry about your health
  • Frequently check your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain
  • Are always asking people for reassurance that you’re not ill
  • Worry that a doctor or medical tests may have missed something
  • Obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media
  • Avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes
  • Act as if you were ill, for example, avoiding physical activities

(HSE 2021)

Excessive worry about any symptoms you may be experiencing can also cause anxiety. Anxiety itself can produce symptoms such as a racing heart, palpitations, sweating or headaches. This can also be mistaken for more serious illnesses. If this sounds familiar or you recognise some of the behaviours in a loved one there are steps you can take to help manage and ease the anxiety.

Tips for Managing Health Anxiety

There are a variety of different ways to managing health anxiety. Some are practical things you can practice, and some are ways which can help manage your thoughts. A combination of both can lead to success in managing health anxiety. It is important to find what works for you as an individual. Try out these activities and techniques and keep what you find is helping you and is enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to try out something and if it’s not helping try something new.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, experience bodily sensations, feelings and awareness of our thoughts without judgement. Anxiety, usually, is a worry about something that could happen in the future. By practicing mindfulness we help to keep ourselves in the moment with a gentle awareness of what we are experiencing right now. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere at any time. There are a number of apps and videos that can help get you started.

Challenging worrying thoughts

Thoughts don’t have to be true or based in reality. They are not facts. When we become stuck in an internal feedback loop we begin to believe our thoughts reflect reality.  Someone with health anxiety may believe they have something wrong with their heart. They may think they have pain in their chest or a rapid heartbeat. This can lead to thoughts of having a serious heart condition or that they may die.

When we ruminate we can accept our thoughts as fact. Instead of ruminating if we can identify the thought, we can then challenge and reframe it. Instead of “there is something wrong with my heart” it becomes “I am only telling myself there is something wrong with my heart”.  The process of identifying and challenging takes practice. Be gentle with yourself as you start.

Turn your focus

People with health anxiety will find themselves focusing on one area of the body. When that happens sensations often become heighted leading to increasingly worrying thoughts. If you become aware this is happening turn your focus to your present task. The aim is to focus completely and fully on what you are doing. If you are cooking for example, draw your attention to the feel of the ingredients, the weight of the utensils you are using. Notice the smells around you and listen to the sounds. Take time to taste something. Bring yourself into the present moment.

Get Help for Managing Health Anxiety

If you are struggling with health anxiety and it is impacting on your mood and daily life, a mental health professional can help you identify what is happening and provide additional coping techniques and strategies to help you manage and overcome this anxiety. If you would like to avail of our counselling services you can book a session with us on 01 611 1719, or by emailing [email protected]

Written by: Niamh Byrne, Psychotherapist, MIAHIP

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