We are living in a time when nothing feels very certain – especially when it comes to our health and the health of our loved ones. This uncertainty is challenging enough for the average person, but for those who already experience health anxiety, things can truly feel overwhelming.
But what exactly is health anxiety, and how can we manage it while still being accurately concerned about contracting COVID-19?
You might be more familiar with health anxiety by its older name: hypochondria. But as with many mental health conditions, most misunderstand how people experience it. When we suffer from health anxiety, we are excessively focused on our physical health and develop some unfounded or distorted fears about it.
Unfounded Fears & Self-Diagnosis
This type of fear can manifest itself in many ways. Imagine, for example, that you notice a slight tickle in your throat one day. For someone who doesn’t struggle with health anxiety, this tickle might mean “nothing” or the beginnings of allergies or a head cold – things that many of us deal with occasionally. In the context of COVID-19, we’re all paying a little more attention to what’s happening in our bodies and most people would understandably get a little anxious. However, we should be able to “talk ourselves down” with some reassuring information from public health information sources and by monitoring our physical sensations and temperature.
On the other hand, if you have health anxiety you’re already more vigilant than typical in scanning your body to notice things that may be wrong. With health anxiety you’d be much more likely to notice that little tickle in your throat. Instead of considering the possibility that that it may be “nothing” or the start of the common cold, you would jump to the conclusion that it’s far, far worse: you’ve caught COVID-19! You become hypervigilant for slight changes in other bodily sensations. You start to experience frequent, repetitive intrusive thoughts about death and dying, and you get stuck in a vicious cycle of hypervigilance and catastrophizing.
These two examples show quite a stark difference in terms of a normal anxiety response to a slight change in a bodily sensation, in this case a throat tickle, and health anxiety.
A Cycle of Obsessing & Seeking Reassurance
In Canada, in normal times, health anxiety affects between 3 and 10 percent of the population. It’s a condition that exists within the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (commonly referred to as OCD) spectrum of anxiety problems, and it’s marked by an obsession with any symptoms or physical sensations that may point to a health significant problem. Someone with health anxiety might also seek the comfort of reassurance from others including friends, family, and their doctor. This comfort doesn’t last, however, and the cycle of fear and reassurance seeking will begin anew.
Dealing with Our Anxiety
So where does that leave us, when we’re all acutely aware of the dangers of spreading COVID-19?
Most of us have at least a little health anxiety these days and that is a good thing. Having some anxiety about COVID-19 is adaptive. It helps us do the things we need to protect our health and the health of others. It’s very okay to be a little anxious. In uncertain times, we’re all concerned – we can only do our best to support one another.
However, if you feel like your worry about your health is “out of control” then you may have health anxiety and you may want to learn some specific strategies for coping better with it. There are certainly ways in which we all can limit the behaviours that compound our anxiety about COVID-19 – for example, constantly scanning our bodies, reading the news and social media posts, or Googling symptoms to self-diagnose or seek reassurance are all behaviours that can make our anxiety worse if we do them constantly and repetitively.
An effective way to learn to limit those behaviours and break the obsessive cycle is through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). BEACON guided digital therapy now provides support that’s specific to improving health anxiety. Now more than ever it’s important to take the time to take care of your mental health, so you can be compassionate with yourself and others.