Health Anxiety: An Underrated Mental Health Issue

Health Anxiety: An Underrated Mental Health Issue
by Isabella Sanderson Sep, 14 2023

Unmasking Health Anxiety: The Silent Disturbance

In the ever-bustling world we live in, much focus is given to physical health issues. They are immediate, visible, and often life-threatening. However, there is another entity lurking in the shadows, a silent disquiet that's just as perilous but woefully under-recognised. I'm talking about health anxiety, a strain of mental health problems that can be just as debilitating.

For those who are not familiar with health anxiety, it's a chronic condition involving persistent worrying about having a serious illness. You might be wondering, "Isn't worrying about your health normal?" Yes, to a certain extent it is. But health anxiety takes this concern to an extreme, transforming it into an overbearing, constant fear that interferes with everyday life, even when there's no substantial medical evidence to support those feelings. Intrigued? Let's delve a bit deeper.

The Manifestations of Health Anxiety: More Than Just Worrying

Many individuals with health anxiety spend a significant amount of time scrutinising their bodies, looking for anything that may suggest illness. Much like my golden retriever, Buddy, is always on the lookout for his favourite squeaky toy. It's captivating, really. However, unlike Buddy's harmless hunter instinct, health anxiety fuels an unhealthy preoccupation with illness that can lead to excessive doctor visits, medical tests, and internet research—often exacerbating the anxiety itself.

Some people with this condition may avoid medical care for fear of discovering they have a serious illness, while others constantly seek reassurance from health professionals or loved ones, much like my parrot, Kiwi, who incessantly seeks attention. Neither approach leads to peace of mind or a resolution of their concerns.

At the heart of health anxiety is catastrophic thinking—interpreting minor bodily sensations, real or imagined, as a sign of severe illness or impending doom. It could be a frequent headache interpreted as a brain tumor, or misinterpreting a skipped heartbeat as a sign of a heart attack. It's not dissimilar to that feeling when you think you've misplaced your phone only to find it in your pocket—the adrenaline, the frantic searching, the impending doom—it's not a pleasant experience.

The Underpinning Factors: Tracing the Roots

Health anxiety isn't born from nothing. It's often triggered by various factors, including past traumatic health experiences, having a family member with a serious illness, over-exposure to health-related information, or co-existing mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.

This reminds me of a phase my husband, Oliver, went through a while ago. The constant influx of health-related news during the pandemic had him scrupulously researching every cough and sniffle. Needless to say, it compounded his existing anxieties and stress levels, transforming every potential symptom into a potential disaster.

The digital age we live in also contributes significantly to health anxiety. The internet, while a goldmine of information, can also be a pitfall for those prone to health worries. It's just so easy to spiral down the rabbit hole of fear and misinformation—a situation infamously termed 'cyberchondria'.

Reclaiming Peace: Overcoming Health Anxiety

Dealing with health anxiety involves a combination of several strategies. Let's go through some of them, shall we?

Firstly, psychological therapy—especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)—proves to be very effective. It helps address catastrophic thinking patterns and teaches practical anxiety-reducing skills. I sometimes like to think of CBT like learning to make a perfect cup of coffee. Exciting, right? It's all about understanding the right measures, recognising what doesn't serve you, and establishing a healthier routine—one that leaves a delightful taste rather than a bitter one.

Relaxation techniques like mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can also play a crucial role in managing health anxiety symptoms. They help you to reconnect with your body in a positive, non-threatening way, almost like dancing to your favourite song with no worries in the world.

Lastly, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet while exercising regularly can greatly reduce health anxiety symptoms. It's like proper care for your beloved pet (think of Buddy and Kiwi here!), ensuring a happy and healthy life. Imagine your body is that pet—wouldn't you want to take the best care of it?

Understanding health anxiety is the first step in recognising and dealing with it. Often underestimated, health anxiety can be debilitating but, with the right strategies, it doesn't have to be. Learning to address it correctly, like tuning a slightly off-key instrument, allows you to live a symphony of a life where health anxiety is but a faint whisper in your daily chorus. Let's not let this mental health issue fall into obscurity any longer.