When you have health anxiety, it feels like you’re at war with your own body. Even the most common symptom can turn into a threat. Out of nowhere, your thoughts begin to spiral out of control. During high stress periods, coping with daily events seems almost impossible. You start to think you’re never going to feel better, even if that isn’t true.
There are reportedly over 200,000 cases of health anxiety in the US alone every year. Despite these numbers, this form of anxiety doesn’t receive much coverage. The truth is, It’s hard to find resources on the topic.
On top of that, we don’t see too many characters with health anxiety in mainstream movies, books and TV. The first time I watched My Girl, I couldn’t believe how much I related to Vada. It felt like such a relief to discover a character my age dealing with the same thing.
My Health Anxiety Story
I was always anxious about my health as a kid. I remember worrying about the littlest things that happened to my body. This could be anything from a runny nose to the flu.
When I was 15 years-old, one of my family members ended up in the hospital. I later started looking up my symptoms online. Even typing “stomach ache” led to something scary, but I kept searching anyway. At the end of the day, I didn’t know how to deal with all of this new information.
Every few months, I started obsessing over various illnesses at once.
Unfortunately, I ignored my anxiety symptoms for two years.
A couple of months before turning 18, I got walking pneumonia. This caused me to miss over a week of school. I was seeing a doctor, but my anxious thoughts became crippling. I couldn’t stop researching health boards online. I’d have crying fits. Even though the walking pneumonia was going away, I still didn’t feel much better.
During that time, I lost a lot of weight from stress and never really wanted to eat. I isolated myself from my friends and boyfriend at the time. Panic attacks got so bad that I had to lie on the floor just to cool down. I even stopped going to classes and didn’t feel excited for stuff like prom, summer, or Friday nights.
It felt like I lost myself. Thankfully, I finally talked to my doctor about these symptoms. She told me that I was experiencing severe anxiety and referred me to an amazing counselor.
My anxiety never truly “went away.” It’s gotten better and worse over the years. Today though, I’m better able to understand and cope with my condition. I realize I’m not alone in all this and health anxiety is very treatable.
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is a condition that causes compulsive thoughts about the state of your health. According to Anxiety UK, it is usually categorized in the OCD spectrum of disorders. A common sign of health anxiety is believing you have a serious illness, even with no symptoms. You may also misread minor bodily signals. This thought process causes a snowball effect of fear.
Another symptom of health anxiety is thinking you have more than one illness at a time. In some cases, you look for symptoms even if they’re not there. Going to the doctor can also be a challenging task. Many people with health anxiety avoid going to the doctor out of fear they will be diagnosed with an illness. On the other hand, they may visit their doctor often and not trust the results.
This “fight or flight” response becomes crippling after a while. You may feel unable to cope with daily events, such as going to work, finishing a school paper, or even getting out of bed. For this reason, it is important to know the signs of health anxiety. You’ll be more prepared to have an honest talk with your doctor and start to feel better.
Signs and Symptoms
Health anxiety presents itself in many ways. Here’s a recap of a few common symptoms you may experience:
- Believing you have a serious illness
- Worrying about more than one illness at once
- Avoiding going to see your doctor
- Visiting the doctor on a frequent basis
- Not trusting test results
- Checking your body for symptoms
- Looking symptoms up online
- Panic attacks
- Racing thoughts
Anxiety also triggers physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, and much more. Someone struggling with health anxiety may confuse these symptoms with other illnesses or conditions.
For more info about health anxiety symptoms, check out this article by Healthline.
Understanding the Causes of Health Anxiety
As with anything in the medical world, the answer is complex. There are quite a few reasons as to why someone would develop health anxiety during their life. Maybe you had a health scare in the past. Perhaps you’ve seen a loved one struggling with an illness. Studies show that anxiety is inherited, so you may have a family history of health anxiety.
Experts also suggest that looking up your symptoms online triggers anxiety. There has been a rise of “cyberchondria” in recent years due to how easy it is to access health related information online.
This factor really hit home for me. When I was in high school, I spent countless hours on health boards researching my symptoms. On top of that, I watched videos about illnesses that scared me. After just a few Google searches, I felt frozen in fear!
To find out exactly what is causing your health anxiety, it is crucial to reach out to your doctor. As scary as this step sounds, they’ll be able to help you cope with your anxiety and find the right treatment plan for you.
1. Schedule routine appointments in advance.
Most times, the worst part about going to the doctor is scheduling your appointment. It may be the anticipation that truly spikes your anxiety. In the past, I’ve avoided going to the doctor for well over a year. This is mostly because I was scared to schedule my exam! If you can, schedule future appointments during your visit. Most doctor offices and clinics offer this booking feature!
But what if you totally forgot to schedule your doctor’s appointment in the office? That’s okay! Feel free to schedule an appointment over the phone or online ahead of time. You’ll feel super productive!
Write everything down in your agenda. Sit in a calming space and have a cup of tea. Think of this as just another errand on your list — nothing scary at all! You’re doing something good for yourself!
2. Find a doctor who you actively listens to your concerns.
If you feel like your doctor is dismissing your worries, you may be less inclined to see anyone. Not truly being heard by a professional is invalidating, especially when you suffer with health anxiety.
This is why it’s important to seek out a doctor who you can trust. Don’t feel like you have to keep seeing a doctor just because you’ve visited them once. Talking to your doctor should be a comfortable experience.
When I was 18, I saw a new GP who totally dismissed my health anxiety. He laughed at the thought of a teenager having anxiety about their health. It didn’t matter if I had seen a counselor about my condition or was taking medication. After that, I didn’t see another doctor for almost two years during college. I wish I had understood at the time that he just wasn’t the doctor for me.
There are so many attentive and kind doctors out there. Keep searching until you find the right one. It will happen! Look at reviews online or ask friends for their recommendations.
3. Avoid going to the doctor over and over again without reason.
Asking for a second opinion is totally fine, but avoid frequent visits to your doctor.
I went through a period of time when I was visiting my doctor six or seven times in one month! My counselor advised me to stop this habit as it was making me more anxious in the long run. She informed me that I was giving into my compulsions by visiting the doctor that often.
It felt good to hear “you’re fine” over and over again. I used those words as a coping mechanism and that wasn’t good for my mental health.
Before calling up your doctor, ask yourself a few questions. Why are you calling them? Is it because you feel better afterwards? Are you experiencing any symptoms? Are any of your symptoms new? Asking yourself questions like these will help you feel more grounded and in touch with your body.
4. Be mindful of when you feel the urge to research symptoms online.
Looking for symptoms online can get addicting. An answer is always easily accessible because there are a lot of places to visit on the web.
If you have researched symptoms online before, don’t be hard on yourself. It happens to all of us. I still catch myself browsing through WebMD every once in a while when my anxiety levels are high. You’re only human and are bound to make mistakes sometimes.
But, pay attention to when you start Googling illnesses and symptoms. What time does it usually happen? Are you alone? Were you experiencing a bad anxiety day before your Google search? Does someone you know have similar symptoms? Track your habits in a journal so that you have a better understanding of how your anxiety affects you.
Finally, whenever you feel the urge to look at your phone, do something that will truly make you feel better instead. Take a walk, talk to your grandma, cook dinner, etc. Each time, you’ll be less and less tempted to immediately look for answers online!
5. Include foods that ease anxiety into your diet.
There are so many yummy super foods that will help reduce your anxiety.
For example, consider adding foods that boost serotonin into your diet. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that relieves anxiety and improves your mood. Some foods that increase serotonin levels are bananas, yogurt, eggs, and salmon. Also, look out for foods that are rich in antioxidants and B vitamins.
A healthy snack that calms my tummy whenever I’m anxious is plain yogurt with bananas and granola. Yogurt promotes gut health, while bananas contain many beneficial vitamins. A perfect recipe for easing anxiety!
6. Stay busy with work projects and hobbies.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for anxiety is to stay busy. When you’re dealing with health anxiety, you constantly feel the urge to pay attention to your symptoms. If you’re preoccupied with other things, you won’t have time to check for aches or pains.
When I’m really anxious, I notice that working on my blog helps me in many ways. Mostly, it makes me feel like I’m helping other people and keeps me productive. I also enjoy talking to customers on the phone at my call center job. Having friends at work along with a consistent routine distracts me from my worries.
This week, my health anxiety was probably the worst it’s been in a while. I’m thankful that I had a productive week despite dealing with these fears. Every time I opened up my blog draft, my mind went into a totally different space. I wasn’t worrying as much about my symptoms because I was that excited to write!
Think of what activities make you feel most productive. Can you take up a new project at work? What are your hobbies? Do you like to cook, write, garden or paint?
Ultimately, with this step, you’ll be replacing negativity with productivity.
7. Eat breakfast in the mornings.
Did you know that skipping breakfast in the morning makes you more anxious? Here’s the thing. If you skip a meal, especially breakfast, it can cause your blood sugar levels to drop. This drop may make you feel dizzy, lightheaded, and weak — all common symptoms of anxiety. I know, scary.
We’ve all skipped breakfast before. Sometimes, life just happens. As time consuming as breakfast can be in the mornings, It’s important to fuel your body by eating a nutritious meal. Your health comes before anything else. If you’re short on time, grab something quick like a cereal bar or an apple. Fun fact — apples actually give you a boost of energy that’s comparable to your morning coffee!
8. Try grounding techniques to help reduce anxiety levels.
Grounding techniques are great for anxiety. They help you reframe your thoughts by focusing on the present moment. When I was seeing my counselor, she introduced me to a lot of grounding and breathing techniques. The other day, I found this amazing article featuring similar grounding exercises to the ones my counselor showed me.
My favorite is the “focusing” technique. For this exercise, all you have to do is hold onto an object like a crystal. Next, notice small details about the object, such as its various colors, shape and texture. Continue doing this until you feel calm again. I like this technique best because it refocuses your attention onto something other than your body.
For more grounding exercises, check out Dr. Allen’s article:
9. Speak openly to a mental health professional about your health anxiety.
When I first started going to counseling, I was worried about opening up to a stranger. I’d never done anything like that before and was intimidated by the concept. Even after one session, I felt relieved. It was so nice to speak to a professional about my health anxiety. She explained a lot of things that I never knew about anxiety. After seeing her on a consistent basis, I started to feel like myself again!
When it comes to health anxiety, everyone’s treatment plan looks different. In general though, common treatment options for anxiety are cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. Make sure to talk to your doctor to see what’s right for you!
10. Follow a routine that helps you feel more in control.
On bad health anxiety days, it feels like you don’t have control. Maintaining a daily routine will help you regain that sense of control. Routines are super powerful, because they allow you to organize your day in an efficient way.
Mornings have always been difficult for me and I finally found a routine that works! Think about a time of day or period during the week that stresses you out. How can you make this moment in time less stressful? What activities do you want to start adding to your daily routine? In what way will these activities reduce your health anxiety?
Buy a cute agenda and jot down a loose routine. At first, it’s a good idea to keep your routine as vague as possible. You’ll be able to rework the routine as you go along. If you’re more of a tech person, I recommend using Google’s calendar feature! You can even highlight different categories, which makes scheduling your day much easier!
11. Buy a few indoor plants.
If you live in a more industrial area, you may feel overwhelmed by its sights and sounds. It’s beneficial to spend time in nature, but hiking in a forest isn’t always an option. In this case, it’s nice to keep a few plants in your place.
I recently bought a few succulents and keep them on my windowsill. When I get home, I love to read and chill out by my succulents. We eventually want to purchase a bigger plant for our living room!
Other great houseplants to keep inside are fiddle leaf fig trees, aloe vera, and english ivy. For more ideas, check out this helpful post by Lauren Conrad!
12. Congratulate yourself for daily wins.
Finally, congratulate yourself for doing the little things. Self care doesn’t always look pretty and that is okay. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself, even if it’s just by taking a shower, drinking water, or making your bed.
On certain days, my health anxiety makes it difficult for me to get out of bed. Small wins are combing my hair and putting on fresh clothes. Bad days happen sometimes. You’re not weak for having those kind of days. In fact, you’re even stronger for them. Just know that things will get better. Take things one step at a time.
If washing your face was your small win today, I’m proud of you. You’re beautiful, strong, and will get through this too. 💛
Do you struggle with anxiety about your health or anxiety in general? Have you ever researched your symptoms online? What tips do you suggest for those who are struggling with anxiety? Also, what tips in this post did you find the most helpful?