Health Anxiety: When Worry Becomes a Disease

Health Anxiety: When Worry Becomes a Disease
Emilia Dunst 26/09/23

Understanding Health Anxiety

As someone who has had her fair share of sleepless nights spent tossing and turning over a sudden onset of inexplicable chest pain, Zeus (my little hell-raiser of a black lab) acting as my very concerned nurse, I am no stranger to the very real, very perplexing condition that is health anxiety. Often dismissed as mere hypochondriasis or even attention-seeking behaviour, health anxiety exists on a complex spectrum of mental health concerns, characterized by the excessive worrying about having a serious illness, despite having no (or only mild) symptoms.

I wish I were talking about a distant acquaintance, a friend even, but nope, ladies and gentlemen, I'm highlighting my very own close encounters with the ever-invading health anxiety. Now, don't get me wrong, I love a good google search just as much as the next person, but when my "mild headache" search turns into a self-diagnosis of a rare, life-threatening brain condition, things start to get a little murky.

And it's not just me! Did you know that health anxiety affects about 12% of the population? That's more than 900 million people globally! Just let that sink in.

When Worry Crosses the Line

Perhaps the questions buzzing in your mind right now are, "So, what exactly qualifies as excessive? Isn’t worry a part of life? How do I know if my worries are crossing the line?" all fair and valid queries, my friends! Now, I like to think of health anxiety as worry's pesky, troublesome cousin who just won't take a hint. While worry is a completely natural response to threats or potential harm, health anxiety cranks that dial up to eleven, flooding our brains with negative, often catastrophic thoughts about our health status.

Remember when I mentioned my panic over a mild headache? Yeah, that's a prime example of health anxiety. I mean, who needs suspense movie marathons when you can unsettle yourself with the fear of having an undiagnosed disease, am I right?

Living under the Shadow of Health Anxiety

So, what's it really like, living with health anxiety? Well, let's just say it involves heaps of endless worry, LOTS of online self-diagnoses -and trust me, it's never just a cold- and probably more doctor visits than your average person makes. It can sometimes feel like you're walking on eggshells around yourself, while trying to convince others that you're not just overthinking. Norman, my seemingly psychic goldfish, gives me a knowing shake of his fin when I have those moments.

Don’t even get me started on the everyday health-related situations! Picture this: You and your friends are at a weekend BBQ. Fun, right? Not so much if you're battling health anxiety. While others are downing sausages and gulping beers, there you are, wondering whether the smoke from the barbie could lead to lung cancer or if the guy flipping burgers washed his hands properly. Ah, fond memories indeed!

Tips to Manage Health Anxiety

Life with health anxiety can be a rollercoaster ride, but it's not a ticket I willingly opted for by any means. And since selling the ticket is sadly not an option, what is there to do? Start by recognising that health anxiety is a legitimate condition, not a figment of your "overactive" imagination. Here are some steps that could help.

Start by seeking professional help. Therapists and psychiatrists are equipped with the right tools and methods to help you manage and, hopefully, overcome health anxiety. CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy has shown promising results for health anxiety.

Next, avoid the temptation to google your symptoms. It's overwhelmingly likely that it will lead you down a rabbit hole of distressing medical conditions that you probably don't have. Let’s be honest, we've all fallen prey to the siren call of WebMD, even when we promised ourselves the last time was indeed the last time. It has never ended well, has it?

Also, try mindfulness exercises and breathing techniques. Practicing mindfulness can help you stay grounded in the present moment instead of fretting over diseases you might or might never have. And deep breathing exercises - trust me on this, it works like charm during panic attacks!

The Way Forward

While it's unlikely there'll ever be a bright neon sign flashing, "Congratulations, you've conquered health anxiety!" there are brighter days ahead. With professional help and consistent efforts at self-regulation, we can begin to change the narrative around our daily aches, pains, and sneezes. Remember, no monster under the bed has ever stood a chance against a well-placed flashlight. And health anxiety is no different.

It's a journey, of course. I can't just Wiggle my way out of this (sorry, had to throw in an Australian band reference somewhere). But it's a journey that begins with acknowledging and understanding this condition, and that is exactly my aim today - in hopes it will lead to a broader dialogue, stronger support, and ultimately, a healthier state of mind for all of us struggling with this somewhat elusive, but nonetheless very real, condition.

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