In the first part of this series of articles, we looked at the causes of health anxiety and the resulting miserable anxiety patterns that it creates.
Here we look at the 2 things that create and intensify health anxiety. We also explore some of the strategies and tools critical to overcoming health anxiety.
#1 Problem: Over-focus on Body Sensations
Health anxiety causes you to pay extra attention, even excessive and unnecessary attention, to physical sensations. You probably have heightened awareness of sensations that most people would not pay much attention to.
EXAMPLE of over-focusing: consider the sensation of swallowing. We all swallow thousands of times per day and never give it a thought. Swallowing is actually quite an odd sensation. It is an autonomic (automatic) function of the human body. We don’t need to focus on swallowing in order to swallow.
But now that I directed your attention to swallowing, did you notice your own swallowing? Would you have even noticed your swallowing if I hadn’t brought it up?
When you become extra sensitive to sensations or changes in your body, then your mind over-focuses on them. Once it starts over-focusing on them, health anxiety can start creating catastrophic thoughts (I call them “scary stories” about those sensations.
#2 Problem: Health Anxiety Thinking Patterns
Repetitive over-focusing on physical sensations/symptoms can lead to beliefs and assumptions about health which can be unhelpful, inaccurate and inflexible, such as…
- “Uncomfortable body sensations shouldn’t be there and are dangerous.”
- “I must take all symptoms, sensations and bodily changes seriously”
- “My doctor should be able to explain each of my bodily sensations and changes”
- “If my doctor doesn’t know exactly what the problem is, then it must be really serious and needs further investigating”
- “All discomfort and bodily changes are problematic, or they certainly could be”
- “I must get reassurance that every symptom/sensation is not serious”
- “If I don’t keep checking, I could miss something really important”
- “If I don’t persist, my doctor may miss something important”
- “If I miss an important health symptom, it could kill me”
Fight or Flight Response
Whenever you have thoughts and beliefs that end in a scary story, your brains’ anxiety response is triggered.
When you tell your brain that there is a sabretooth tiger that could eat you and you could die, your brain triggers a fight-or-flight response. This creates more anxiety or even panic attacks.
Guess what? Anxiety itself creates real physical symptoms, so now you have even more physical sensations (or the ones you already had get worse).
Increased sensations only reinforce the over-focus on physical symptoms and magnify fear that something must be really seriously wrong.
Anxiety can create or worsen any or all of these symptoms/sensations:
- nausea or upset stomach, all sorts of GI issues including GERD and IBS
- racing or pounding heart
- changes in breathing / breathlessness
- chest pain or pressure
- dizziness, light-headedness
- blurred vision or widened pupils or seeing spots
- light or sound sensitivity
- dry mouth
- confusion / brain fog
- hot or cold flashes
- numbness and tingling
- fatigue or exhaustion or sleep disturbance
With so many physical symptoms that anxiety can create, it can become difficult to know if your physical sensations are from anxiety or the dreaded “something else.”
How to Overcome This?
The key to resolving health anxiety is to address your underlying thoughts and beliefs about your health. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is highly effective for this.
It’s important to find a positive focus on being well and healthy, without excessive worry thoughts about possible things that “could” be wrong with your health. Therefore, building up your ability to tolerate uncertainty is a part of eliminating health anxiety.
The excessive worry that comes with health anxiety leads to excessive focus on body sensations – a pattern that becomes a vicious cycle. So therefore, it’s also important to change any unhelpful habits that keep you over-focusing on your body sensations.
Examples of unhelpful habits include:
- “Checking” behaviors (repeated checking to see how you look or feel)
- Internet searching
- Seeking repeated reassurance
- Excessive and repeated medical visits, tests
Finally, research proves that stress and anxiety contribute to any illness or disease. Because anxiety can add to distressing symptoms, it’s important to focus on tools and strategies for overall anxiety reduction.