Health anxiety: Stop worrying unnecessarily when you are in good health

Black woman waiting for a checkup
There are some of us who frequently feel sick. We get all sorts of symptoms, and can’t help thinking of the worst diagnoses. Frequent trips to the doctor all turn a blank. Nothing to find on getting examined and all tests always turn out normal. Sounds familiar? It’s called health anxiety, or if you want a more scientific term, hypochondriasis.

Health anxiety is the result of an inaccurate perception of the condition of your body or mind. This is in disregard of objective evidence of the absence of an actual medical condition. You literally become unduly alarmed by inconsequential symptoms, to the extent of seeking medical help. At the back of your mind, you are constantly thinking about getting a serious diagnosis, like cancer for example. Once your doctor goes through you with a fine-tooth comb and finds nothing, you don’t believe them either. Well, at this point, you have become a hypochondriac.

Why does the condition occur?

In simple terms, it is a disorder of perception and extreme vigilance of the state of your health. Innocuous bodily occurrences, like sounds produced by the intestines, for example, may trigger negative thoughts about the disease. This might then lead you to cross-check things with family or friends, eventually ending up with a physician. Sometimes a trigger for the condition is observed in people whose relatives or friends may have suffered a serious illness or premature death. But there is also an association with psychological disorders like depression or general anxiety.

You will often get diagnosed with health anxiety if you exhibit persistent beliefs of serious disease in the absence of supportive medical evidence. The duration of your symptoms is sometimes defined as beyond six months for you to qualify. You will possibly have had multiple medical consults and endless tests, without anything specific coming up. You may at times have had some empirical treatment as well, without significant resolution of your symptoms.
As you can imagine, treating hypochondriacs is no mean feat. Several approaches have been tried, with various degrees of success. The choice ranges from what is called behavioral therapy, to specific medications for some. It can be frustrating for you as a hypochondriac when you strongly believe that something is the matter but no medic can put a finger on it.

Most of us will experience short spells of health anxiety, without ever getting to the point of hypochondriasis. If you have minor and inconsequential symptoms, there’s no use pursuing them endlessly. If an objective medical assessment gives you the all-clear, believe it for heaven’s sake! Yes, there may be times when something can get missed, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Get on with your life, and stop worrying unnecessarily when you are in good health.

How to Overcome Health Anxiety: 3 Helpful Tips

In severe cases, health anxiety can become disruptive to a person’s life. It can interfere with their daily activities, hurt their work performance, and even cause strain in relationships. Fortunately, there are ways that you can cope with your health anxiety, including:

  1. Changing your focus of attention
  2. Practicing mindfulness
  3. Challenging your worrisome thoughts

Read on to learn more about each of these coping techniques in further detail alongside treatment options for health anxiety.

Change Your Focus of Attention

People with health anxiety will often focus on a particular part or function of their body. The more they focus on a part of their body, the more they notice physical sensations – which can then trigger worrying thoughts.

These initial thoughts can trigger anxiety, in turn causing additional physical sensations. At this point, the person may begin to believe their anxiety response is further evidence of physical symptoms. You can see how this creates a cycle of worrying. This cycle is known as rumination.

If you feel yourself becoming too focused on a particular worry, it’s important to redirect your attention to something else. One of the most straightforward ways of accomplishing this is to turn your focus to an activity, such as:
  • Cleaning a room
  • Gardening
  • Doing a crossword puzzle
  • Painting or drawing
  • Going for a hike
Regardless of the activity, the goal is to pay full attention to what you are doing. For example, if you’re gardening, notice the sounds around you. Note how your spade feels as it digs into the soil. Listen to the sloshing sounds of the watering can and feel its weight in your hands. By putting our complete attention into a task, we are able to pull our minds away from our worrisome thoughts.

Sometimes, though, this strategy may be less practical. For example, if you’re lying in bed trying to sleep but find yourself becoming stuck on a particular worry. In these situations, we can learn to practice mindfulness exercises that will help us to break out of our ruminations.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our thoughts, our surroundings, and our actions in a purposeful way. While the practice is rooted in meditation, it has become increasingly useful in therapy.

In fact, the practice of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be highly effective for individuals suffering from health anxiety. So, how can you incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life? There are several exercises you can try.

Mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise

Look around your current surroundings and identify:
  • Five things you can see
  • Four things you can touch
  • Three things you can hear
  • Two things you can smell
  • One thing you can taste
Going through this exercise helps to ground you in the current moment and in the environment. While simple, it can help pull your focus away from ruminating thoughts. It’s also an exercise that can be done anywhere at any time.

Listen To Music

This might seem like too simple of an exercise, but the key is to listen mindfully. What does that mean?

While listening, try not to go right into “autopilot.” Instead, actively listen. Focus on the lyrics, if there are any. Try to identify individual instruments. Visualize the sounds or words in your mind. This exercise can help draw your attention to the present moment.

Practice Guided Meditations

Guided meditations take us through a process of letting go of our thoughts and relaxing our bodies. If you’re struggling with health anxiety, calming your body and mind can help alleviate current physical anxiety symptoms, in turn reducing some of your health worries.

There are a number of options for guided meditations. You can often find a large number of free options on sites like YouTube. Additionally, there are apps available like Calm and Headspace. Find what works best for you and try to regularly practice meditation. Start by aiming for 5-10 minutes, once per day.

Challenge Your Worrying Thoughts

Thoughts are not facts. They are just thoughts and they don’t have to be true or based in reality. However, when we ruminate, we begin to believe our thoughts reflect reality. For example, people with health anxiety may often worry about their hearts.

They may think their chest or their heartbeat feels off, leading them to think, “There’s something wrong with my heart.” This can turn into, “I have a serious heart condition.” Eventually, they may even think, “I have a heart condition and I’m going to die.” The problem here is not that they are seriously ill, the problem is that they think they’re seriously ill.

When we ruminate, our thoughts can represent our perceived reality. In other words, we accept our thoughts as facts. Instead, we need to adopt a practice known as cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion teaches us to identify and challenge our negative thoughts. Once a thought like, “There’s something wrong with my heart” has been identified, you can challenge and reframe it. For example, thinking instead “I’m only telling myself that there is something wrong with my heart.” This process of identifying and challenging takes practice. It helps to work closely with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist to develop coping techniques.

Finding Treatment for Health Anxiety

Like other anxiety disorders, health anxiety can become debilitating. When your health worries begin to interfere with your life, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.
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