Sick with worry about getting sick?
Everyone worries about their health every now and then, but for some people the fear of becoming ill with something life threatening can be overwhelming. According to an article in the Toronto Star by Dr. Robert G. Maunder, true hypochondria (a debilitating condition which is the result of an inaccurate belief that the sufferer has or is about to be diagnosed with a serious illness) is actually quite rare, affecting just 1% of people.
Much more common is something called health anxiety, claims Dr. Maunder, which is an amplified but not debilitating or all-consuming concern about health. The internet may be partly to blame for the spread of health anxiety. With so much information so readily available, it’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole and wander into self-diagnosis territory. Most websites, even reputable ones, present worst-case scenarios that, while rare, can make someone who is already anxious about a perceived medical threat panic. Even if the information states that there’s a 99% chance that the worst-case scenario won’t happen, it’s the 1% chance that an anxious person will fixate on.
So what can you do if you feel you’re spending too much time worrying about your health in a way that’s not productive and causing you more anxiety? We have some suggestions to help you manage your fears.
- See your doctor. While this may seem counterintuitive – people who have health anxiety may find visits to the doctor stressful – it’s reassuring to get a complete check up and discuss any concerns you have.
- Be prepared. When visiting your doctor, make the visit as relaxing as possible by being on time, bringing a friend for moral support, and writing down any questions or concerns you have in advance so you don’t have to worry about forgetting something.
- Step away from the computer. If looking up symptoms and conditions makes your health anxiety worse, stop doing it. Talk to your doctor when you have a concern about your health, don’t consult your computer instead.
- Talk about it. If you talk openly about your anxiety to your family, friends and your doctor, you may feel more comfortable talking about new health concerns without the fear of immediately being written off. You can, for example, tell your doctor that the shortness of breath you’re experiencing is different than when you’re feeling anxious.
- Make your anxiety work for you. If you’re worried about heart disease, for example, start eating more heart-healthy meals, quit smoking and get more exercise. Turn that anxious energy into something positive that’s good for your body.
- Redirect your energy. Try yoga, guided meditation or breathing exercises to help calm your nervous system and relax your body.
If you have a friend or loved one who struggles with health anxiety, be patient and loving in your response to their concerns. The worst things you can do are to dismiss their fears by saying it’s all in their head, tell them to “just relax”, or make a joke about the anxiety they are experiencing. Listen attentively, offer your support and suggest they consider some of the suggestions we’ve outlined here to help them cope with the anxiety they are experiencing.
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