Are you always worried about your health? If so, you may be among the 1-3 percent of the population (Bustle) who are worried sick, dealing with a disorder called: Health Anxiety Disorder (Harvard).
You may have also heard of this referred to as Illness Anxiety Disorder, hypochondriasis (Mayo), or Somatic Symptom Disorder (Bustle).
For purposes of our conversation, I am going to refer to this health phenomena as Health Anxiety.
Today you’re going to learn:
- What are the signs and symptoms of Health Anxiety?
- Do I have Health Anxiety?
- What causes Health Anxiety?
- Solutions for Health Anxiety.
Be sure to stick around to the end, because I have a super-secret, glittery and gold gift that you’re not going to want to miss.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Health Anxiety?
Lucy was terrified of going to school. It all started in 3rd grade when a little boy in her class puked on his desk in the middle of their English lesson. Now, as a Freshman in High School, her anxiety about getting sick was taking over her life.
“I know it’s not logical, but I can’t get the smell and the image of him throwing up out of my head. What if I get sick? What if I get some terrible disease from another kid at school?”
If you’re like Lucy, and a fear of disease or a fear of getting sick is holding you back, you might be struggling with Health Anxiety.
Health Anxiety is a form of anxiety that causes you to worry excessively about being or becoming seriously ill.
The human body in its normal healthy state makes all sorts of sounds and produces a wide variety of sensations. For example, sometimes you may feel your heart pounding, and at other times you may not feel it at all. Sometimes our nerves tingle a little bit, and maybe even our stomach is really noisy. With Health Anxiety, discomfort, and normal bodily sensations are misinterpreted as dangerous.
Here is the typical pattern:
And on, and on, and on.
In Health Anxiety, while the sensations you are noticing are very real, your interpretation of them is not.
SELF ASSESSMENT QUIZ: Do I have Health Anxiety?
Answer yes or no to the following:
- When I notice bodily sensations that my doctor has told me are normal, I feel dread or doom that something is wrong with me.
- I feel preoccupied with the need to assess my body for signs or symptoms that something is wrong.
- I automatically interpret new or uncomfortable sensations in my body as a serious medical illness.
- I have had physical exams and lab testing is done all of which have been normal, but yet I still feel worried that something is seriously wrong with me.
- You spend a lot of time researching your health, seeing reassurance, or trying to avoid anxious health thoughts and feelings.
- You feel like your doctor has missed something life-threatening and either go back for more testing to try to confirm your fears.
If you answered yes to more than two of the above, it might be valuable to ask your trusted health care provider about Health Anxiety.
What causes Health Anxiety?
There are many different factors involved in the development of health anxiety. Looking at the section on the Cast of Characters from the ACT Method in the Anxiety Breakthrough Program, we are able to investigate the variables that may have contributed to your Health Anxiety development. The Cast of Characters is broken down into three types: Social, Psychological, and Biological.
Health Anxiety Signs and Solutions: While the exact causes may vary between individuals, here are the main reasons someone may develop health anxiety.
- There are 3 main Psychological Characters:
- You have a poor understanding of bodily sensations, health, disease, and what is normal and abnormal.
- There are parts of yourself that are anxious and hyper-vigilant. If you struggle with generalized anxiety, your brain may anxiously mistake normal sensations and bodily changes as dangerous, when in all reality, they are normal.
- You have endured stress or trauma in your life that makes your nervous system more attuned to danger.
- There are 3 main Social Characters:
- Your caretaker(s) may have struggled with anxiety and as a child, you learned that the body is scary and that being anxious is protective.
- You have witnessed illness or injury in others (like Lucy witnessing the little boy at school getting sick).
- You are exposed to scary information on the internet or social media. Signs of this might be that you saw or read something online which caused Health Anxiety, or you had a worry about your health and found yourself down a rabbit hole of all the terrible things that could go wrong in your health.
- There are 3 main Biological Characters:
- Your body is producing neurotransmitters and hormones that make you generally more anxious and fearful. This may occur as a result of stress, trauma, environmental factors, or even due to certain medications.
- You have another health condition that makes you worry that something else is going to happen.
- Your body is changing and you are unfamiliar with the accompanying sensations. For example, when you run or get excited, your heart rate changes. As women enter menopause they may notice changes in their body as their hormones change.
Solutions for Health Anxiety
The good news is, that Health Anxiety is very treatable, and with the right support, the prognosis is excellent.
In order to create a plan for healing, we can return to the ACT Method. The T, which represents Tools for Transcendence, is all about helping you turn the page and take your life back.
Naturopathic Medicine emphasizes the importance of addressing the root cause of our symptoms, we can find the root cause in our Cast of Characters.
So let’s go back to Lucy from the beginning of our conversation.
Lucy was in 3rd grade and a little boy in her class got sick and threw up on his desk. One of Lucy’s Psychological Cast of Characters was that Lucy was not necessarily educated about what may cause one of her classmates to get sick. She also had the Social Character of a classmate getting sick and maybe it was not managed well by the teacher. Her Biological Characters were the sensations of fear and terror at the thought of going to school and contracting an illness.
When we perceive something scary paired with a feeling of fear, we try to create understanding and a plan for protection. Lucy’s brain told her that going to school was dangerous because kids get sick at school and that something terrible might happen to her. To protect her from true danger, Lucy’s brain developed an extreme fear about health risks, and had to avoid school to keep her anxiety at bay.
We did 3 things to help Lucy transform her anxiety into freedom:
- Lucy received education about health and the human body. She also learned about anxiety and got the tools to identify a true risk from an anxiety symptom. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most commonly used tools for Health Anxiety (NAMI), and I have an amazing strategy for you that I’ll share at the end.
- Lucy received EMDR treatment for the traumatic episode from 3rd grade. Healing our Psychological Characters often goes beyond logic. Just like Lucy said, she knew her anxiety wasn’t logical but she felt afraid anyway. This is where EMDR really shines. Trauma research shows that anxiety impacts the logical centers of the brain (which is where CBT focuses), but it also affects our emotional centers, and physical centers (EMDR).
- Lucy worked with her Biological Cast of Characters to calm her nervous system, improve her overall health and manage the feelings of fear as they came up.
Here is a list of additional solutions for Health Anxiety:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Health Anxiety: This will help you identify your health beliefs and thoughts and give you ideas on other ways to perceive bodily sensations. CBT also helps you to learn not to scan your body for problems and tips for coping with anxiety and stress (Healthline).
- Avoid the internet rabbit hole: One of the top things you can do to free yourself from Health Anxiety is to stop researching your health. Find a clinician or trusted doctor to monitor your health with appropriate labs and physical exams. You want to be an advocate for your health, but if you are not a medical expert, anxiety will try to fill in the gaps of your knowledge.
- Learn about the Science of Anxiety: Knowing about the body’s sensations when anxious will help you identify if your thoughts are anxious symptoms or indicators to help you investigate with logic (Healthline).
Believe it or not, anxiety is actually good for you. Anxiety is your body’s attempt at getting your attention so you can heal more deeply. By listening to your symptoms and honoring them by following the steps in the ACT Method you can achieve true freedom.
Remember how I promised you I had something super-secret, glittery, and gold gift? This is where I get to share with you a project that I’ve been working on for quite a while. It’s called the Anxiety Freedom 1-Week Challenge. In this FREE challenge, you will learn the Glitter and Gold method for TRANSFORMING anxiety into a SOUL ON FIRE. A Soul on Fire is where you are living your life to its fullest, fueled with the fire of passion, joy, life, and happiness where anxiety isn’t running the show.
I have been working with individuals with anxiety for over a decade and created this challenge from some of my most successful material. Over the week, you will get daily emails, videos, and a beautiful booklet that will teach you powerful techniques to STOP HEALTH ANXIETY and start living your life again.
Dr. Nicole Cain is an advocate for empowering people around the world to help themselves via her educational video e-courses, books, and exclusive free Facebook group. You can receive the tools you need to find the root cause of your symptoms and feel healthy again.