Over the past couple of years, the topic of health has become front and centre in our minds. As the Coronavirus pandemic spread, so, of course, did our fear. This is natural – there are very few of us who can be unfazed by a virus of this scale. As awareness and media coverage increased, more of us began worrying about our health. What does this headache mean? Is that a new continuous cough, or is it allergies? Does that chest pain mean something, or is it anxiety?
Wearing a mask, regular handwashing, testing ourselves, and checking symptoms have all become part of our routine. Moving around our day-to-day lives with a sense of low-level anxiety feels almost normal now. So, at what point does this natural worrying instinct become something more problematic?
Health anxiety is what I’m alluding to here, a term more of us are becoming familiar with. Previously known as ‘hypochondria’, this form of anxiety is when we are persistently worried about our health, to the point where it interferes with day-to-day life – and this is the distinction we should be aware of. Psychotherapist Michael Swift tells us it is completely normal for us to worry about our health, and Google the odd symptom here and there.
“The signs that this worry is becoming increasingly difficult to manage is when thoughts, emotions, behaviours, or physical sensations interrupt day-to-day life, and stop you from doing what you want to do,” he explains.
“Many of the people I work with often feel unable to go to work, spend time with their children, or enjoy social gatherings due to the fear of developing a severe health condition. For others, they may be spending an excessive amount of time Googling their symptoms, or visiting their GP, to rule out the possibility of illness. When we see this transition from manageable worry to intense anxiety that interrupts your normal routine, it may be time to seek some further support.”
It’s all just about finding and learning a new way forward. It’s both never too soon, and never too late, to get help
For Maddie Ace, content creator at She Be Red, a family holiday that saw her entire family fall ill triggered the start of her health anxiety. “I remember just automatically going into protector mode when those around me didn’t seem able to handle the situation, and that feeling never went away.”
This led to obsessive and compulsive behaviours, that eventually resulted in a breakdown.
“I don’t think I was super conscious of it until it vehemently started to take control of my everyday behaviour,” Maddie says. “Sometimes the gradual build-up of subconscious behaviours makes it difficult to recognise you have a problem until you’re already in the thick of everything that’s changed.
“About two years after the triggering event, I had a breakdown after there was a national outbreak of the norovirus. There was too much for me to control and, at that point, my nervous system just collapsed. After a couple of weeks at home, I remember looking at my university applications and realising I wasn’t going to be able to live the life I had dreamed of. So, I walked into the living room and simply said, ‘I think I need help’ to my mum.”
Maddie notes that getting the right support wasn’t simple, and required her to go down the private route after NHS support didn’t work out. “But the dream of going to uni pushed me to keep going. The first thing you try might not be what you need for your own healing, so keep going until you find what does.”
If you think you may have health anxiety, knowing the signs can help you know when to reach out for support.
“Health anxiety presents itself in different ways for most people,” psychotherapist Michael says. “However, there are a range of common symptoms including:
• Constantly thinking or worrying about your health
• Frequently checking for bodily changes, including lumps, bruises, moles, or areas of pain
• Seeking reassurance from medical professionals, friends, or family that you are not ill
• Worries that medical professionals have ‘missed’ a life-threatening illness or symptom
• Avoiding medical-related shows or news articles
• Obsessively reading forums online, or Googling health-related symptoms.”
If these symptoms are ringing true for you, you are certainly not alone – Michael notes that health anxiety affects around 4–5% of the population. Understanding how to move forward with this knowledge is key.
“I would always recommend speaking with your GP, as they will be able to support your treatment process by guiding you towards resources, talking therapies, or commencing medication if needed,” Michael says.
“There is also a fantastic range of self-help tools available online for managing health anxiety that will guide you through relaxation techniques, and help you to manage negative thoughts when they arise.”
In terms of what therapies can support, Michael says for those experiencing severe health anxiety, speaking to a trained cognitive behavioural therapist who is familiar with this area is recommended.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based talking therapy that allows you to explore the interactions between your thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and physical sensations. It works by breaking the cycles which maintain health anxiety, and allows you to challenge the negative thinking patterns you have developed.”
Michael also highlights that the aim of CBT is not to completely stop worrying about your health, but instead to be able to weigh up the evidence for and against your thoughts, so you can reach a more balanced outcome.
For Maddie, while she still has tough days, she says therapy has helped her learn tools and strategies that allow her to take back control of her life.
“For anyone reading this who thinks they may have health anxiety, just know, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken. Of course, your mental health is trying to protect you, especially after all we’ve been through with Covid. But if we don’t know how to manage the emotions, the habits we build can harm instead of help us.
“It’s all just about finding and learning a new way forward. It’s both never too soon, and never too late, to get help.”
For more information and support for managing health anxiety, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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