Ever since I was little, I’ve dealt with ongoing anxiety about my health and health problems that I could have. Cancer is usually at the forefront, although rabies and tetanus have also had starring roles. This past year has been particularly trying; of course with COVID-19, but also with personal health concerns so I thought that I would share some tips that have personally helped me when I have to deal with concerns over health anxiety.
Before I get started with the tips that have helped me, I wanted to say; if you struggle with health anxiety (also known as hypochondriasis), you are not crazy. You’re not an idiot, and you’re not being silly. I know being a hypochondriac is often joked about and that your friends and family may often get irritated with your constant worries and brush you off. But I want you to know that I understand how frustrating and exhausting it is to be living in your head with constant worries, worries that feel very real despite test results and assurances, worries that insist on bubbling up and overwhelming you with a very real terror. I can’t offer and quick tips or instant fixes, but below are a couple of things that have helped me. If nothing else, please follow tips 1 & 2.
- Find a good doctor who understands health anxiety and let them know that it is something that you struggle with. One of the worst things to have to deal with is a doctor who sweeps your concerns under the rug and will not listen to your worries or take the time to explain things to you in detail.
- Ask your doctor to connect you with a trusted therapist. If you’re like me, you may have thought that this is “just how you are”, but it is a form of anxiety and it is something that you can work through! There are ways to stop, or at least decrease, these terrible thoughts. Your therapist will work with you to recognize and overcome these anxieties and of course their advice should be taken over mine. If your family members have become irritated with you when you express concerns, maybe even consider having them attend a session or two (with your or separately) so they can receive support themselves as well as gain understanding about what you’ve been dealing with.
- Learn about and recognize common thinking distortions. It can be very helpful to recognize when you are catastrophizing, for example, and to talk yourself through different (likely more realistic) options. When you find yourself thinking “I just know that bump is cancer and I’m going to die”, (first, get off Google!!), remember that there are many, many common lumps and bumps and that even if, on the off chance that it is cancerous, there are many excellent, advanced treatments and that cancer does not necessarily equal death.
- Talk through it with someone. Our minds are very creative and circulating worries through them time after time tends to allow them to get blown way out of proportion. Putting your thoughts into words and getting them out of your head can be so powerful. If you have a trusted friend, family member or therapist, let them know that you have anxieties surrounding your health and may need support when you are dealing with them. If you don’t have someone to talk it through with, journaling can be helpful as well.
- Play the “worst case scenario” game. (It’s not quite as awful as it sounds). Actively identify what the worst case scenario is and ask yourself what you would do. What steps would you take if your worst worry did happen? I find this helpful because instead of letting my thoughts run wild with unknowns, I can identify steps that I would take and how I would deal with the worst possible scenario. It can be helpful to write these down as well.
- Let yourself worry – for a bit. Let yourself worry for a set period of time each day (maybe ten minutes every evening). Sit down and actively worry. Think of all your worries and concerns and worst case scenarios for ten full minutes. Ten minutes doesn’t seem like a long time, but when you’re trying to actively fill them with worries, you might find that it gets difficult and you might find that instead of feeling worse that instead you start to get…bored. If you find this helpful, let this become a routine, where worries can become so boring that you don’t bother entertaining them as often.
- Stop your brain from traveling on the worry train. When we worry about different things that we can’t necessarily address immediately, our brain wants to try to rehash the concerns so it can try to work out the problem. Tell yourself that you’ve already made a plan for dealing with the concern (eg. you’ve made a doctor’s appointment to get a lump checked out), you’ll re-evaluate the problem when you have more information (eg. an expert’s opinion, test results), and that your worries can wait until your designated “worrying time” outlined in point number 6. I’ve found it incredibly helpful to tell my brain “this has already been dealt with” or even just that “I’m filing this away to deal with later”. It doesn’t mean the worries don’t return, but it does help to stop them in their tracks.
I hope some of these tips prove helpful for you. Health anxiety and the fear it causes is so difficult to live with and can negatively impact your day to day life, your wellbeing and your relationships. But there is help.