Why health anxiety doesn't make you healthier & what you can do about it.
It's not just you.
First off, if you’re anxious about your health, you are in good company. Symptoms can be scary – especially in the age of the Internet.
- When you hear someone discuss a disease – whether in real life, TV, or on the news – do you feel a sense of dread or panic for no reason?
- Are you up late itching to type one more medical question into Google?
- Do you imagine worst-case health scenarios instead of falling asleep?
- Do you obsess about each small symptom you have throughout the day?
- Are you tired of worrying about the meaning of that minor symptoms your kid had this morning?
- Do you criticize yourself for each health decision you make?
- Do you agonize about whether or not to make an appointment for minor symptoms with your health practitioner multiple times a day/week?
- Are you afraid you are going to get each new cold or flu that comes along?
- Do you avoid normal social situations because you can’t shake the feeling that you might get sick afterward?
Yuck. What good does any of it accomplish?
Health anxiety doesn't actually help.
Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t fix problems. It would be REALLY nice if it did though, right?
Anxiety is more likely to keep you frozen in place – unable to make any positive decisions because you are so worried about making the wrong ones.
- Health anxiety steals joy.
- Health anxiety takes up way too much time.
- Health anxiety keeps you a prisoner in your own mind.
- Health anxiety undermines long-term learning and growth.
- Healthy anxiety (like any other anxiety) can actually make you sick.
Frankly, anxiety sucks. And we at the Lab want to help if we can. So we’ve put together our best tips and tricks to help you manage your health anxiety. We all gotta start somewhere!
Breathe. Then ask yourself how realistic your thoughts actually are.
- What evidence is there that this thought is true?
- What evidence is there that this thought is not true?
- What would I tell someone I loved who was in this situation and had these thoughts?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the worst that could happen?
- If my automatic thought is true, what is the best thing that could happen?
Find these useful? (We REALLY do!) These questions are taken straight out of a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) handbook. (We recommend working through most CBT tools with a therapist, though.)
This seems like a no brainer, but not so much. We humans are superstitious – and sometimes it feels like if we say something out loud, we’ll make it come true.
When it comes to health anxiety, talking about the worst case scenario you’ve been imagining can strip the thought of its powers.
So, unburden yourself with someone you trust. It’ll be awesome.
Don’t be afraid to talk to a professional listener (i.e. a therapist). They can help you learn to separate your fears from reality and regain time you’re losing each day to spiralling thoughts.
Come up with a distraction routine that engages 3-5 of your senses.
So everyone likes to tell us to be PRESENT all the time. To seize the moment. To embrace every minute. Well, that’s not super possible when you’re being “present” in an anxiety attack.
When you’re having a good day, make up an anti-anxiety routine for yourself. Design the routine to create the maximum amount of distraction and the least amount of discomfort.
For example, Miranda likes to slip on some comfy clothes, listen to a podcast on her headphones, set up a movie in the background for ambient noise, and then A. stress clean, or B. play geography trivia games.
How else could you engage your senses? Sky’s the limit – just be safe and kind to yourself and others while you do it.
Seem frivolous? Nah. It’s all about re-routing your brain down a different highway.
Take care of someone you know, especially someone who is sick or chronically ill.
Counter-intuitively, taking care of someone who is sick can take the terror out of medical problems. Focus on helping the person to solve their small (or large) problems. Pretty soon your subconscious will realize that the health issues you’ve been imagining can be approached analytically and socially with the help of others.
Not only that, but you’ll probably figure out that being sick is just part of life. Even most chronically ill people learn to cope and enjoy life where they can.
You’ll also gain some gratitude for the good health you currently have.
Perspective, man. It’s powerful.
Trust us, this helps slow down the catastrophizing thoughts. Plus, you’ll be doing something good for someone else. Win win.
Remember: illness isn’t a choice or a moral failing.
Once upon a time, most human communities believed that getting sick was a punishment for a moral failing. This mindset can start out as a comfort. After all, if you don’t want to be sick, just be good. Don’t anger any deities and you’ll be right as rain.
Most modern societies retain parts of this story within our new understanding of medicine and human biology. How so?
In subtle ways, cultural influences tell us that people get sick because of bad choices. That if they would just try a little harder, they would 100% be well. Consequently, if you’re trying REALLY hard, you’ll be free of health complications.
The flip side of this idea? That if and when you get sick, everyone will know that you failed. And that’s terrifying.
Don’t get us wrong, your health choices matter. (We wouldn’t be running the Global Wellness Lab otherwise!) But ultimately health is a combination of so many factors (genetic, environmental, social, lifestyle, etc.) that you can’t control what happens to your body. No one can. All you can do? Do your best.
But wait a second. Your “best” is not equivalent to perfection. Nobody’s perfect, and perfection is overrated anyway.
For most people, “best” just means staying above water (not walking on the top). Give yourself credit for every day you stay above water . . . and look for people who can help you do it.
Be honest. Are you burnt out?
Stress can make your brain believe A LOT of things that aren’t true.
Because of the constant stressors of modern life, most adults can benefit from supporting their adrenal glands (that manufacture and secret stress hormones like adrenaline/epinephrine).
You can check out our recommendations for stress support here.
Ask yourself if part of your daily routine may be making your anxiety worse.
- Lack of sleep?
- Too much caffeine or alcohol?
- Not enough social support?
- Do you need to walk outdoors?
- When was the last time you drank water or ate a balanced meal?
It’s truly the little things that can push worry into full-blown, debilitating anxiety.
Lucky, though. Little things can be changed.
Take charge of your health and your health fears by making small, doable, and fun changes to your way of life.
Talk to a health coach or your health care practitioner to help you figure out where to start.
And once you start, give yourself credit for the small steps. Walking on water is hard.