Some people don’t know that there’s such a thing as health anxiety, which is a condition that affects their mental health more than they could imagine. If you find yourself fearful or preoccupied with thoughts and beliefs that you are sick or about to acquire a serious illness, or if you interpret certain bodily responses as symptoms of a dangerous disease, then you might have this condition. If you have suspicions, make sure that you consult with a medical professional to have your health anxiety treated as soon as possible.
Health Anxiety: A Clear Definition
Health anxiety is also called illness anxiety disorder and hypochondria. People with health anxiety tend to worry and fear excessively about having a serious medical condition, despite minimal or no evidence to support it. Health anxiety can be a source of significant distress and preoccupation with essentially nonexistent problems about one’s physical health, which can impact their daily lives negatively.
Physical Symptoms of Health Anxiety
Those with health anxiety experience a wide range of physical symptoms differently from normal people – the way they interpret and experience “symptoms” actually mimic how actual medical conditions are felt.
Remember that these symptoms aren’t imagined; rather, they’re how heightened stress and anxiety levels manifest among people with health anxiety. To understand this better, here are some physical symptoms associated with health anxiety:
- Palpitations: People with health anxiety may feel their heart racing or pounding, often due to increased adrenaline levels triggered by anxiety.
- Shortness of Breath: Health anxiety can cause people to feel as though they’re breathless or have some difficulty breathing, which is often due to hyperventilation or rapid, shallow breathing.
- Muscle Tension: Those with health anxiety often experience muscle tension and stiffness, particularly in the neck, shoulders, and back, which can occur because of heightened stress and anxiety levels.
- Headaches: Health anxiety can cause a person to have frequent tension headaches or migraines, which may be triggered or worsened by stress.
- Gastrointestinal Discomfort: Those with health anxiety also experience symptoms like stomach aches, nausea, bloating, or changes in bowel movements (diarrhea or constipation), which arise due to the gut-brain connection and the impact of anxiety on the digestive system.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness: Health anxiety can make people feel dizzy or lightheaded during moments of heightened anxiety, which are often due to hyperventilation or changes in blood flow.
- Sweating: Those with health anxiety may also sweat excessively, particularly in the palms or underarms, which are most likely physical manifestation of stress and anxiety.
- Fatigue: Health anxiety may make you more susceptible to experiencing persistent fatigue or exhaustion, as anxiety can disrupt sleep patterns and increase mental and physical strain.
For those with suspicions, remember that experiencing the said symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have underlying medical conditions. But if you’re concerned about your symptoms or their impact on your daily life, it’s best to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper assessment and diagnosis.
By acknowledging the physical symptoms and understanding their association with health anxiety, people can gain a better understanding and work towards effective strategies for managing and alleviating their health anxiety.
How to Deal with Health Anxiety
Here are some strategies to help individuals deal with health anxiety:
1. Educate Yourself
Psychoeducation is key – gaining knowledge about health anxiety and its symptoms is a crucial first step in managing the condition. By understanding that anxiety-related thoughts aren’t grounded in reality and aren’t based on actual medical evidence, people can start rationalizing their fears and reducing their anxiety levels in turn.
2. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is known to be a very effective treatment for health anxiety, as this therapeutic approach focuses on the identification of irrational thoughts, questioning these thoughts, and replacing them with positive, more realistic ones.
Apart from targeting cognitive functions, CBT also incorporates behavioural techniques to let clients “sit” with their fears, get accustomed to the feeling, realize that it’s not so bad, and in turn, reduce avoidance behaviors. Working with a trained therapist who specializes in CBT can provide valuable guidance and support in managing health anxiety.
3. Relaxation Techniques
Squeezing in some relaxation techniques into your daily routine can help alleviate your health anxiety symptoms. Some of these techniques include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation, which prove to be effective practices that can help calm the mind and body.
Relaxation techniques like these can be learned through self-help resources such as vlogs, podcasts, or instruction guides, or by attending relaxation training sessions with a trained instructor.
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4. Seeking Support
Don’t just rely on random pieces of advice – reach out to mental health professionals, such as psychologists, who specialize in anxiety disorders like health anxiety. Evidence-based talk therapy and personalized coping strategies are all parts of the treatment plans that therapists use for those with health anxiety.
It can also help to have support groups or online communities to give you a sense of understanding, validation, and connection with others who have similar experiences. People’s experiences with health anxiety are unique, and it’s up to the therapist to find the right cocktail of strategies, exercises, and medications to manage and treat health anxiety.
The Best Medication for Health Anxiety
People often opt for medication as the last resort when it comes to health anxiety, but it’s good to consult first with qualified healthcare professionals like psychiatrists or primary care physicians. Medical professionals weigh the individual circumstances and potential risks of a of their training in handling any level of severity of health anxiety symptoms and prescribe appropriate medications if they deem it necessary.
Meanwhile, some medications that are commonly prescribed include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) for anxiety disorders like health anxiety.
Health anxiety can significantly impact a person’s well-being, but with the right knowledge, coping strategies, and professional support, it’s possible to manage and overcome it. Remember, you don’t have to face health anxiety alone. NuVista Mental Health is available to support you on your journey to improved mental well-being.
Author Joanna Jeffers, M.A., C.Psych.