Health anxiety affects up to 10% of the population and occurs equally in men and women, developing at any age. In the UK health anxiety is estimated to cost the NHS more than £420 million a year in outpatient appointments alone, with millions more spent on tests and scans. If you suffer from health anxiety, you will have an excessive preoccupation with the thought that you have, or may develop, a serious physical illness, or may react anxiously to symptoms that you give exaggerated importance to, perceiving them as more serious and threatening than they actually are. Like any anxiety, health anxiety can be particularly disabling and disruptive to our lives, but the good news is that in many cases health anxiety will respond successfully to treatment. In this post I will explain how you can identify and start to overcome health anxiety using some powerful and effective techniques of mindfulness, reframing, and clearing.
Health Anxiety Symptoms
Health anxiety can focus on existing or feared health conditions. Health anxiety symptoms are identifiable as follows, and typically persist for at least 6 months:
- You experience anxiety because you are convinced that you have, or may develop, a serious physical illness.
- You frequently check your body for signs of the serious physical illness you fear, or seek repeated diagnoses.
- You worry or think excessively about the serious physical illness you fear.
- You focus on and misinterpret harmless bodily sensations or anxiety symptoms, seeing them as distressing proof of a serious physical illness.
- You exaggerate the seriousness of bodily symptoms or an existing health condition, causing yourself distress.
- You dismiss any negative diagnosis or reassurance by health professionals as inadequate.
When the symptoms of the illness you are fearing are shared with the physical symptoms of anxiety itself—a tight chest, breathlessness, dizziness, blurred vision, palpitations, tingling, nausea, weakness, fatigue, etc.—the fear can easily feed into a vicious cycle as the anxiety symptoms are misinterpreted as the symptoms of the illness you fear, generating more anxiety and more symptoms that seemingly confirm your fear.
To be sure, in the case of a serious physical illness being diagnosed, the associated anxiety is not considered to be disproportionate or a disorder, and so is not classed as health anxiety.
Health Anxiety Triggers
Health anxiety can be triggered by the following:
- Anxiety disorder.
- Depressive disorder.
- A serious illness or health trauma in the past.
- The death of a family member or friend.
- Having a family member or friend with a serious illness.
- Having health anxiety in the family or ancestral line.
- Having a family member worry a lot about your health when you were young.
Once a link to a trigger can be seen and understood, there is the possibility to break the link by reframing your perception and belief, by spotting the distortions of thinking that keep the link in place, and by using EFT (Emotional Freedom techniques) to clear the imprint in your body’s energy system. This approach works well and is part of the Inner Wellness Strategy I use with my clients.
For example, if you are a sensitive personality prone to anxiety, you can challenge the distorted belief that your health is under threat, and realise that this belief was formed because your nervous system has gone into fight or flight mode, exaggerating the potential for seeing things as a threat.
If the trigger was the death of a family member by cancer, you can challenge the distorted belief that because they died of cancer, the headaches you get are likely to be caused by a brain tumour. There are many causes of headaches, and cancer is an extremely rare one.
Health Anxiety Core Beliefs and Patterns
In my work with health anxiety I have found the following hidden core beliefs and patterns present in people with health anxiety. If you suffer from health anxiety, see if any of these apply:
- I worry or think excessively about my health.
- I exaggerate the risk of me being ill.
- I jump to conclusions and assume that I am ill.
- I carry out constant self-examination and focus excessively on unexplained body sensations or changes, and their meaning.
- I fear or keep thinking that I have a serious illness.
- I do not trust my body’s ability to stay healthy.
- I do not trust my interpretation of my body’s wellbeing.
- I do not trust the diagnoses or reassurances of my health.
- I fear or axaggerate the consequences of being ill.
- A rogue part of me would benefit from being ill.
Having identified the core beliefs and patterns that apply to your health anxiety, they can start to be dismantled with the tools of mindfulness, reframing, and EFT.
How to Overcome Health Anxiety
Learning how to overcome health anxiety requires you to look at and change the meaning you give to a bodily sensation or health condition that causes you anxiety. One of the key components of the therapy I provide in my Inner Wellness Programme is mindfulness-based reframing in which perceptions are challenged for their validity and the distortions of thinking are uncovered and cleared. I also use other techniques to build a strong state of resourcefulness, and support the cognitive work with EFT and spiritual healing and alignment. Mindfulness can be used to bring your attention back to centre, withdrawing it from the thoughts and feelings that would otherwise escalate into anxiety and distorted thinking.
Let us take a look at Amy and how she learns how to overcome her health anxiety:
- She recognises that two key triggers for her health anxiety are her anxious personality and the experience of her mother dying of cancer.
- She changes the meaning that she gives to her fatigue by challenging the belief Because my mother died of cancer I am more likely to have cancer than average, and this must therefore be a good explanation for my fatigue. She sees that there are other explanations for her fatigue, such as her anxious personality, which exhausts her adrenals and depletes her magnesium stores.
- She begins to reduce her anxiety by practising the mindfulness exercises I teach and applying my specific EFT corrections.
- She realises that one of her core beliefs is I do not trust my body’s ability to stay healthy (number 6 in the list above). She looks into her past and remembers that she suffered from repeated childhood illnesses that caused her to lose trust in herself. As an adult she is always getting colds and her body is sensitive to certain foods. All these things seem to be evidence that she cannot trust her body. Her health anxiety and lack of trust in her body causes her to jump to a conclusion and believe that the body sensations that she experiences are evidence that she may have undiagnosed cancer, and that her body is falling apart.
- Once she spots the core belief that she doesn’t trust her body, and starts to practise the mindfulness techniques, she can stop the negative reaction of her automatic pilot, bring her attention back from her fears, and find evidence for and against her body being untrustworthy. When she is in an anxious or depressed state, she will see more of the negative, and less of the positive. With mindfulness and meditation she changes her state to a neutral one and evaluates the evidence from a more resourceful and balanced point of view. She can see that, actually, her body is not falling apart and is doing a good job of staying together. Her cold had healed last month, and the scar that she had on her leg from where she scraped it has also healed. All her senses work fine. She can walk without an aid, and when she looks in the mirror she looks more or less the same as she did last week, last month, and last year. Her husband constantly tells her that she is beautiful, and although she previously thought he was just saying that to make her happy, she accepts the possibility that he may truly mean it. She then recognises that she had jumped to the conclusion that her body was falling apart, had magnified her experience of her symptoms, and had used selective thinking to only notice the uncomfortable sensations and symptoms of her body.
- Amy sees that her lack of trust in her body is itself a distortion of thought, based on her overwhelming experiences in childhood, and her mother telling her as a child that she couldn’t stay healthy, which she continued to believe throughout her life.
- She breaks the link with the trigger using the mindfulness-based techniques and EFT, and decides to trust her body again, which then helps reduce the anxiety that she feels and improves her immune system (the immune system is depressed by anxiety and shame).
- She decides to take a risk and take up dancing with her husband. Her confidence and energy levels are increased over time and she finds that it is fun being in her body and that she can actually trust it. She soon realises that her health anxiety symptoms have cleared up.
A key takeaway message from this post is that when your nervous system is overstimulated it can alter your feelings, thoughts and sensations for the worse, giving them a negative bias. This serves us well in times of actual danger when we need to fight or escape the tiger running towards us, but only serves to drain our energy and vitality and undermine our health and wellbeing at other times. So if you would like to learn more about your health anxiety, or would like to know how to overcome health anxiety using the tools and techniques of my Inner Wellness Strategy, book a FREE 45-minute session with me by clicking here and I will be glad to help.