Identifying Health Anxiety
Health anxiety is a common affliction but it's something my sister and I often teased our mum about when we were younger. It seemed that whenever there was an outbreak of an exotic-sounding ailment in a far corner of the world, Mum would be convinced she’d contracted it. It wasn't until years later, while I was studying health psychology, that I realized Mum was a perfect case of health anxiety. So how do we identify health anxiety? well, if symptoms and illnesses are your daily specials, and you have more doctors' numbers in your phone than your friends', you might be dealing with health anxiety. It involves persistent worry about having a serious illness despite medical reassurances. It’s also known as illness anxiety, and hypochondriasis in more severe forms.
Unravelling the Mind-body Connection
A small pain in the toe, a little cough, a slight temperature - and there you go web-searching the possibilities and scaring yourself to death. I remember a few years ago, when a friend of mine was visiting me. She experienced a minor sharp pain in her wrist. Instead of considering simple reasons, she jumped to an online diagnosis which convinced her she had carpal tunnel syndrome. Anxiety about our health and wellbeing isn't baseless, it’s deeply rooted in the complex relationship between our minds and bodies. It's natural for your mind to think of 'what if' scenarios. But in cases of health anxiety, this mechanism goes a little overboard.
Mindfulness as a Shield
Mindfulness – a term every self-help book on my shelf loves. Don’t mind me, I'm a self-confessed self-help junkie! But really, mindfulness is becoming a buzzword for good reasons. It refers to the practice of being present, paying close attention to the present moment, and not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what's happening around us. When it comes to dealing with health anxiety, mindfulness can play a big role. Instead of fearing the unknown, embrace the present. And trust me, this is much easier said than done. If your mind starts jumping from symptom to symptom, ground yourself with deep breaths. Each deep breath in and out acts like an anchor, idling your mental ship from drifting into the oceans of panic. But how, you ask? Just breathe. Seriously, try it right now. Join me and take three deep breaths - Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. And remember, bad breath days are okay. After all, it's about focusing on the 'now'!
Seek out (the right) Help
Anyone? Doctor in the house? All jokes aside, seeking medical advice is a very sensible response when you're feeling unwell. But, when the anxiety takes over, we distend reality and downplay rationale. Platforms like WebMD have made health information accessible but, on the downside, it's opened the floodgates for self-diagnosis and anxiety. The truth is, the loneliness of scrolling through endless lists of symptoms, while fighting back tears at 2 a.m., is something you do not deserve. A clear route towards managing health anxiety, therefore, is seeking professional intervention, and that means turning to your healthcare provider rather than Dr. Google. Remember the wise words of my mum - "A stitch in time saves nine." But unlike her, make sure the stitch is by a professional (unlike the time she tried to stitch her torn dress by herself. Sorry, Mum, but we all remember the Safety Pin Incident of 2019!).
Active Lifestyle and Positive Affirmations
Exercise is the long-lost cousin I rediscovered in lockdown. It was a welcome distraction, to say the least. A well-known natural stress reliever, working out helps manage anxiety by boosting your mood and acting as a natural painkiller. Even a brisk walk can make a difference. While affirming "I am a fitness queen" will not give you abs, affirmations do help control our mental state. And remember - never compare your Chapter 1 to someone else's Chapter 20. I, too, get breathless while simply scrolling through the fitness posts on my feed! Every effort counts. And yes, picking up the remote control does 'not' count as an arm workout. I wish it did!
Health anxiety can be overwhelming but by being aware, mindful, seeking professional guidance, and staying fit both physically and mentally, we can aim to regain control of our lives. Take it one day at a time, my friend. Work on your wellbeing, because you definitely deserve it. Just like a good-quality, expensive, dark chocolate…oozing with goodness. What, I love chocolate. Please tell me I am not alone here!