You might spend hours on-line researching health information. If you get a headache do you think brain tumor- not dehydration? And despite medical tests indicating that you are healthy, it doesn’t make you feel any better. The nagging doubts persist, leaving you feeling like something is wrong. If this sounds like you or a loved one, it might be health anxiety. This condition can interfere with your life, however the good news is that it is highly treatable.
The Greek word “hypochondria” approximately translates as “below the ribcage”. Over the past 3,000 years it was utilised to explain indigestion, then melancholia, then neurosis and then, finally, “a misplaced fear of illness based on the misinterpreting of bodily symptoms”. According to Professor Peter Tyrer, head of the centre for mental health at Imperial college London about 1-2% of the population suffer with health anxiety.
Health anxiety is described by Anxiety UK as: ‘an anxiety disorder that is often housed within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) spectrum of disorders. Those affected by health anxiety have an obsessional preoccupation with the idea or the thought that they are currently (or will be) experiencing a physical illness.’ “Those with health anxiety for the most part are fearful of serious illness such as cancer, HIV or dementia. They worry a great deal less about minor ailments” reports Dr Timothy Scarella, instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical school.
The majority of people with this condition may not recognise quickly that they have anxiety around health, as they are preoccupied by the perceived threat of potential illnesses and often it can be a person close to them that identifies it. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, created a tick list to identify whether or not you are experiencing health anxiety. You can have a look at the full list here, otherwise go onto a quick self assessment quiz I put together based on some of the questions in the original NHS list.
Self Assessment Quiz for Health Anxiety
1. How do you feel?
2. What are you thinking?
3. What you end up doing
If you found yourself saying "Yes" to some or all of the symptoms and these symptoms are regularly effecting you, then it's possible that you are suffering from health anxiety.
There are certain factors that may make it more likely that a person will suffer from health anxiety such as,
Testing may appear to be a fast solution for relieving health worries, however, for people whose health anxiety is unmanageable, testing rarely gives long lasting relief. Fundamentally, no amount of testing can remove the worry and in fact it reinforces the anxiety. Seeking reassurance can be like taking an opioid drug as it works at first but then wears off and then you become dependent.
The diagram below shows how thoughts, emotions, behaviours and actions are all linked and using CBT techniques can break this cycle.
Search any symptom and there will be results that suggest surgery or connect the symptom with some type of cancer. Such extreme ideas can trigger elevated levels of anxiety immediately, especially for those who are already afraid of health problems. Some people can become obsessed with researching online convincing themselves of the worst possible scenario. Furthermore, anyone can publish online, and some sources may be entirely inaccurate.
This method has provided instant relief to many clients as it fosters different ways of looking at your thoughts rather than buying into them. Make a list of all your recurrent body related thoughts and give them a label ie, ‘I have a thought that I might have Aids’ or ‘ I have a thought that I would like to seek reassurance that I am healthy from my partner’. Put a tick in the relevant box every time they occur.
It may be useful to notice which thoughts turn up in particular situations. One of my clients noticed that whenever she had a routine doctor’s appointment, she would start to think about additional issues she might seek reassurance on or tests she could request. Once she recognised this pattern, she was able to break the cycle and drastically reduce her anxiety.
Safety behaviours can provide you with relief in the short term however according to research by Bunmi (2011) they actually maintain and reinforce anxiety conditions. Examples include physical checks of your body or seeking reassurance from others or online about your health.
Create a plan to reduce counterproductive safety behaviours. Write down you targets. You may feel an impulse to seek reassurance from a loved one but before acting on this impulse, ask yourself is this actually helping in the long term? Cutting down and finally eradicating safety behaviours may be hard at first however will drastically improve your anxiety condition.
As you may have gathered from my tip number 2, a key aspect of recovering from health anxiety is distancing yourself from thoughts. This means not being swept away by your thoughts but instead being aware of them as a passive observer. It may seem difficult at first but is worth persisting. The goal is to develop the skill of observing mind- made activity and the result is that you learn over time to interrupt the process that leads to conditioned behaviour and habitual actions and reactions. Eventually you understand that thoughts do not matter, its how they affect you that counts. Being able to accept the thoughts and not buying into them is a major part of getting over health anxiety.
To help practice distancing yourself from your thoughts you might like to try a simple visualisation exercise below.
Leaves on a Stream
Find somewhere safe and warm to settle for five minutes.
Close your eyes and imagine a very beautiful slow-moving stream. The water flows over rocks, around trees and descends down the valley. Imagine you are sitting beside that stream on beautiful warm summers day. Now become conscious of your thoughts. Each time a thought comes into your mind, imagine that it is written on one of the leaves. Or if you think in images then put the image on the leaf. The objective is to stay by the stream and to watch the leaves flowing by. Imagine your thoughts and emotions are like leaves floating down the stream, instead of getting entangled in them, you can choose to watch them come and go.
Hypnosis often creates very deep levels of relaxation for the client which reduces stress and anxiety. Depending on the needs of the client, I often use tailored hypnosis alongside behavioural therapy such as CBT. Research has shown that talking therapies can be highly effective in treating health anxiety by breaking the vicious cycle of altered thinking, feelings and behaviour. Hypnotherapy can also help you recognise and ‘let go’ of safety behaviours such as seeking reassurance and repeated physical checks.
Whatever your history may be, your mind is trying its hardest to keep you safe, however this might be reinforcing the anxiety cycle. Hypnotherapy can help calm your mind and re-program unhelpful thought patterns so that you can get back to a fulfilling life. You can find out more about about my approach to treating health anxiety and other anxieties or click the link below to book a free consultation call with me.