Coping with Health Anxiety: A Survivor's Guide

Coping with Health Anxiety: A Survivor's Guide
Simone Blackwood 11/09/23

Understanding The Monster: Health Anxiety

There Lays the Big Bad Wolf, somewhere deep within us, that of health anxiety. It's a monster we all avoid discussing, but it haunts most of us, especially in this digital age where we can Google symptoms quicker than I can quell Cody, my ever-energetic Golden Retriever, when he sighting squirrels. Yes, dear readers, the fear and worry of being seriously ill, often triggered by nothing more than vague symptoms or even a simple, fleeting thought, can quickly snowball into an all-consuming health panic.

The scientific word for this terror is Hypochondriasis. I know, it sounds like a dinosaur name from a children's book. Regardless of what you call it, this overblown fear of medical conditions can itself become a significant health issue. It can drive you to visit countless doctors, undergo unnecessary medical tests, and fall prey to a crippling, debilitating anxiety that clouds your every thought and prevents you from truly engaging in life. It robs you of your joy and turns every minor ache or discomfort into an emergency.

My journey with dealing with health anxiety began after going through a medically challenging period. Just like Cody gets paranoid seeing a vet, even our mind becomes hyperaware of every tiny slight, every symptom, every test result, after a health scare. It is a never-ending cycle of worry, investigation, relief, and more worry. For some, this can go on for years.

But today, nurturing the wisdom garnered from my journey, I am going to share insights into dealing with health anxiety. It's my Survivor's Guide - a blueprint with proven strategies, personal anecdotes, and golden nuggets of wisdom. Let's face the monster together!

Breaking the Fear Cycle

My dear readers, the first step in this journey is identifying the fear cycle. Health anxiety, like most other forms of anxiety, isn't random or purposeless. It's a cycle of three main steps - triggers, anxieties, and relief seeking. Your poor brain is merely doing its utmost to keep you safe in what it perceives as dangerous territory, even if it is often misinterpreting signals. Harrison, my dear spouse, often refers to it as 'our brain on steroids'! I guess that's his way of bringing humor into what could otherwise be a scary conversation.

Now, this cycle might look like this: you have a headache one afternoon (trigger), which you immediately think might be a brain tumor (anxiety). So, you start Googling symptoms and even make an unnecessary (and costly) ER visit (seeking relief). In the ER, after many tests and much anxiety, you find out it's just a stress headache. And for a little while, you feel better. However, the next headache you get (trigger), the entire cycle begins again. You see, the relief is brief, and our brain doesn't like to be wrong. It would rather raise a false alarm, then miss such an important warning.

To break this cycle, you must understand your triggers better. What are the patterns, habits, or cues? Try keeping a journal of triggers and how you react. This way, you can identify patterns and work on preemptive strategies. This is a crucial first step while trying to uproot health anxiety.

Resisting the Temptation of Dr. Google

Next up is the most common pastime of every health-anxious person ever — Googling symptoms. We all do it. Even as I was drafting this piece, I found myself mindlessly heading to Google to read again about symptoms of a well-known disease. Imagine getting caught by Harrison or Cody inspecting WebMD or Mayo Clinic for no good reason!

This self-diagnosis is a well-trodden path to amplified anxiety. While it's good to have access to information, it's important to remember that as laypeople, we often don't have the training to interpret medical data correctly. Without an understanding of odds and margins of error, it's easy to mistake common symptoms for the direst of diseases. Let's trust our doctors. They've studied health and medicine for years! The internet, though an unrivaled source of information, isn't the place for nuanced, individualized diagnosis. Getting medical advice from the internet is like asking tech-support for relationship advice. You're not going to get the tailored, expert guidance you need.

So, limit your Google-health-searching. Try designating a limited time for health concerns each day, and work slowly to shrink this window. Replace this with more enriching, empowering activities.

Practicing Mindfulness and Meditation

This might sound clichéd, but mindfulness and meditation have scientifically backed benefits for people experiencing health anxiety. Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment with kindness and curiosity. Just imagine being kind to yourself like Cody displays his affection after missing me for a whole 10 minutes! Isn't that kind of self-care wonderful?

Mindfulness allows us to break the anxiety cycle by teaching us to respond rather than react to our thoughts. So the next time you feel the axiety wave rising, turn on your best mindful mode. Try to understand your thought process, scepticisms, fears and worries. Are they substantial enough? Are they logical? Can you be objective and see that a headache is just a headache and not the sign of some life-threatening illness? The answer will most likely be yes. High five to mindfulness!

Taking a few minutes to meditate each day can also help you manage stress and anxiety, boost your mood, and improve sleep quality. And hey, you can always start with just two minutes of meditation, every day!

Talking it Out: Finding Support and Seeking Therapy

Despite how isolated you may feel, remember you're not alone in this battle. Millions of people worldwide share your struggle, and speaking about it can help immensely. Just as I share my experiences with you here, please also share yours with your loved ones. Drop the stigma like a hot potato! Speaking up also shows others that they're not alone and that it's okay to struggle and need help.

Professional support is absolutely vital in tackling health anxiety. A licensed therapist or psychologist can provide you with tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that can help you manage your fears. CBT is incredibly effective at treating health anxiety and has helped many people, including me.

I understand seeking professional health can be a daunting step. It was for me. But trust me, it's like taking Cody to the vet. Initially, he may resist, perhaps even panic, but the visit ends up being very beneficial for him. The same goes for therapy. It helps clear the cobwebs of worry from our minds and equips us with resilience.

Please remember, dealing with health anxiety is a long-term process. It's not going to be an overnight fix, but each step you take brings you closer to living a healthier, more carefree life. Just when it seems too overwhelming, picture Cody, nudging your hand and looking at you with those deep understanding eyes. Let's conquer this together!

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