I’m sure a lot of us are guilty of it – we notice something unusual on our body or in how we feel, and immediately head to webmd where we swiftly diagnose ourselves with the most severe chronic disease that happens to intersect with our symptoms. Hint: it’s always cancer! Well, luckily not.
One of my close friends is a doctor and confirmed to me: never google anything. Doesn’t matter what it is, don’t google that shit.
Oh, I googled a lot. And it never once helped me.
The only thing it made me realize over the years (yes, years, I’m slow) was that worry is one of the most useless activities we can undertake in life!
This completely normal behavior that we all know sounds innocent, but for some of us it digs a bit deeper.
I wasn’t aware of the term health anxiety up until recently but I obviously knew about hypochondria.
While it was clear as day that my relationship with my health wasn’t normal (whatever normal is anyways), I always thought hypochondria sounded a notch too severe for what I experienced somehow.
But I just didn’t dive deeper into this topic until I realized my thoughts and reactions about health-related things were reaching unreasonable levels of concern and anxiety.
I found myself consistently concerned with my health and experiencing severe levels of anxiety that were disproportionate to my actual reality.
That’s when I started googling the real problem – not all my benign symptoms that surely had to mean something sinister in my mind, but the crippling fear that was driving me.
Why I Suspect This Is Much More Common Than Reported
When I discovered the term “health anxiety” it just clicked with me. Not only did it sound less complex than hypochondria, it also seemed like something I could actually work on and fix.
Because knowing just how much my very simple mindfulness practice had helped me through difficult times and general anxiety already, I knew it could help this too.
If my hypochondria was actually nothing but an anxiety relating to my health, I knew I could do something about it using mindfulness techniques.
And I want to share this, because having health anxiety absolutely sucks. IT BLOWS! Not only can it make us postpone our routine checkups, it can prevent us from living well simply because we get consumed by the anxiety itself. It can even lead to psychosomatic symptoms.
But people rarely speak about it, and when we do, we often gently poke fun at hypochondria and health anxiety.
The problem just is that it doesn’t make the person suffering from health anxiety any less anxious, and the negative impact of any kind of anxiety can be super destructive.
And I’m not gonna lie, I think parts of what I’m about to share sound downright stupid myself. And this is why I think health anxiety is a much more widespread phenomenon than we think it is.
Disproportionate Concerns In Spite Of Constant Reassurance
I’ve come a far way with this but still consider myself in recovery, although I’m happy to report that there’s a lot that can be done to manage health anxiety in my experience. If you think you suffer from health anxiety, first of all you should definitely know that the anxiety you feel is completely real.
More importantly – this is something you can absolutely take control of and improve! You don’t need to suffer!
I’ll give my top tips on how I’ve dealt with my own health anxiety at the end of this article and have also made a Cheat Sheet which you can download for free, but before that let’s look at what it is and how it’s commonly experienced.
Harvard Women’s Health Watch define health anxiety in the following way:
- You have no symptoms, but still fear that you are sick
- When a doctor reassures you that you don’t have an illness or a test shows you’re healthy, it doesn’t relieve your nervousness
- You find yourself constantly seeking health information online.
- If you read a news story about a disease, you start worrying that you have it.
- Your worries about your health are interfering with your life, family, work, or hobbies and activities.
… I definitely ticked all of these boxes at some point in time, and as I mentioned didn’t think it was an issue until it reached the point where the anxiety was crippling and left me unable to focus on my job or anything else for days at a time at its peak.
My Mom’s Death Was My Biggest Trigger
I have always been on the sensitive side in general, but as a normal, healthy young woman I was never confronted with any real health issues in my life or in general.
That’s not to say I took it lightly – I would meticulously go to my dermatologist for any birthmark that seemed just a tiny bit strange even in my early 20s.
Looking back, it was a normal precaution, but my level of worry was totally outsized already then.
I’d look at the offending birthmark, send my mom pictures and in spite of it displaying no real symptoms of melanoma, be deeply convinced that it was a looming death sentence.
But my mom passing away from cancer when I was 30 really kicked my health anxiety into high gear.
Long story short, it made me painfully aware of my own mortality.
I wasn’t mentally prepared at all for how quickly she passed away either, and found myself experiencing intense death-anxiety.
My Year Of Excessive Doctors Trips
Looking back, I definitely underwent massive stress in the year after my mom passed away.
My life was insane on all front: work was crazy, private was crazy, and I did a few house moves on top. I also didn’t give my body the rest it needed, and I sure felt it. This was all on top of handling my own grief as good as I could.
I found myself increasingly anxious about my own health. I’d make repeated trips to my doctor at every little pseudo-symptom within the first year, feeling certain something was wrong with me, and a pattern began forming.
It would go something like this: my doctor would carefully examine me and find a small anomaly. I’d then cling on to this as the answer to what was causing my exhaustion, and often internalize it to the extent that I’d think I felt physical symptoms that confirmed it.
I’d feel consistent breathing difficulties, but neither sleep apnea tests, lung capacity test or chest x-rays would show any sign of illness. For each and every test I did, I felt convinced that I’d finally solved the mystery until it would come back negative.
The Final Trigger
Until finally something real was wrong with me. A routine pap-smear (which I of course had done yearly) showed cell-changes, and after a biopsy my gynecologist referred me for a conization.
When she called me with the news, she told me that based on my history of regular screening she was not concerned but recommended I just get this very common procedure done.
Needless to say, I only heard a select part of this message – the worst part. I then began googling and quickly I spiraled down a rabbit hole.
My anxiety in the following days got so out of hand that I realized something had to be done. It was natural to be anxious about a surgery, sure, but it was all-encompassing.
I couldn’t work. It kept me awake. I felt absolutely tortured. It was the only thing I could think about and I was absolutely tormented, thinking I was going to die when this was very far from the actual reality to put it mildly.
I decided I needed to actively take action to step out of my fatalist mindset.
My boyfriend, who had been with me through most of my previous health-scares, calmly reminded me that I had a tendency to overreact to these types of things. I finally saw the pattern for what it was and started researching.
There are many good resources for how to calm down health anxiety, and you can absolutely take control of it. For me just a few hours of anxiety-specific meditation and mindfulness practices already made me feel significantly better.
On the Health Anxiety Cheat Sheet I’m sharing I’ve listed the things that helped me the most. It contains all the visualizations, positive thoughts and affirmations that helped me almost immediately.
I’m not saying that you can overturn a severe anxiety just like that, but the worst thing you can do is nothing.
I Realized Doing Nothing About My Excessive Health Anxiety Would Have Been Self Harm
I have definitely reached a point in life where my top priority is self care and living well, even when that means going to bed early and sometimes saying no to things that I want to do (aka staying up until 2am drinking wine of the sofa).
I slowly realized that my health anxiety was at such a level that it was self harm if I didn’t take action on it. Setting aside my anxious fears, I was rationally able to see that all the agonizing I did was taking my focus away from living well in the present moment.
Subconsciously I also felt it held me back from properly planning my future. These are pretty big consequences!
It’s normal to be concerned, but I found myself constantly pushing my mind down the path of “what if”, and it was getting really dangerous for my wellbeing.
I came to the conclusion that worry and hope requires the same level of effort, so we might as well pick hope! Worry is a very useless feeling as I wrote at the top.
I started practicing mindfulness meditations every day and would focus intently on observing any obsessive, concerned feeling about my health and simply discard it as “not me”. It actually helped me.
My Top Tips For Dealing With Health Anxiety:
- Speak to your doctor about it. If it’s really taking over your life, cognitive behavioral therapy can be a great help.
- Talk to a close, trusted someone or partner but consider how other people can help you constructively. It’s NOT helpful to have someone that rewards your anxious behavior with coddling and attention, rather it worked well for me to have someone who could give me a neutral perspective.
- Practice mindfulness – there are so many great guided meditations and mindfulness sessions for general anxiety.
- Write down a list of things that calm you down or give you relief from the anxiety so you have a script for things you know help.
- Breathing exercises are great to do for as long as you need to whenever you feel a surge of anxiety.
In the end I learned to be kinder to myself and it made me really rethink the power of mindfulness and meditation.
The most powerful realization was that my anxiety was becoming a form of self-harm. Knowing I had this tendency and not taking action on it would have been really destructive behavior that I couldn’t have let myself get away with.
I’m not saying I won’t ever feel anxious about my health again, but the experience taught me a lot, and I finally feel I have the tools to cope much better.
If you have experience with this please leave a comment below!