Health anxiety is when you become fixated on health worries or concerns. These worries can either be about yourself or your loved ones. They can become all-consuming and can start to interfere with your daily functioning.
You may be experiencing health anxiety if you find yourself:
- Constantly thinking about and obsessing over your own or other people’s health
- Reading a lot about ill-health or ‘googling’ symptoms
- Frequently checking yourself for lumps, bumps, rashes etc.
- Regularly seeking health advice and reassurance from family or friends, pharmacists, or doctors
Health Anxiety: When Anxiety Becomes Stuck
We all have feelings of anxiety, worry and fear – these are helpful responses to certain situations. For example, you might worry about exams or a job interview. This can give you an awareness of the risks and what you need to do in a difficult or dangerous situation.
This reaction is known as ‘fight or flight’ and is a completely normal response to a real or perceived threat.
Your brain responds to a threat or danger by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Even if you’ve imagined the danger, these hormones can cause the physical symptoms of anxiety. Once the threatening situation has stopped, your body will gradually return to normal.
In health anxiety, these feelings of fear and danger become stuck and can interrupt your daily routine long after the threat has gone. This can manifest in several different ways.
There can be mental symptoms such as:
- Racing thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of dread or panic
- Imagining the worst and dwelling on it
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
Or you could have physical symptoms such as:
- Breathing difficulties
- Dry mouth
- Heart pounds, races, skips a beat
- Body aching
- Tense muscles
- Dizziness or shaking
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea
- Tingling or numbness in toes, fingers or arms
You might notice thoughts such as:
- “This must be cancer.”
- “A headache this bad can’t just be stress.”
- “What if the doctor missed something?”
- “If I don’t act now, I might die.”
- “What if that tingling is a sign of a stroke?”
From the list above, it’s clear that some of these anxiety symptoms can easily be mistaken for symptoms of an ongoing medical condition. It can therefore be difficult to work out what is a genuine medical complaint and what symptoms are being caused by anxiety.
5 Ways to Manage Health Anxiety
The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help yourself manage health anxiety.
1. Keep a Diary
Note down the times when you’re feeling anxious and record it in as much detail as you can:
- The date and time of day
- What you were doing at the time you became aware of feeling anxious, who you were with etc.
- What you are actually feeling – describe both the physical and the mental symptoms
- What thoughts you are having
Every week, take some time to review your diary entries. This will help you to work out whether there are any patterns to your thoughts and feelings and whether they’re linked to any particular days, activities or times.
This may also help you to identify triggers such as feeling stressed about a Monday morning being linked to a headache, for example. Being more aware of what’s going on for you will help you to proactively take steps to reduce these triggers and better manage your symptoms.
2. Schedule Activities You Enjoy
Identify some activities that you know you enjoy and which make you feel calm and relaxed. Proactively schedule these into your day to support your mental health in a positive way.
Maybe you enjoy meeting a friend or going for a walk – having things like this to look forward to can be a useful distraction.
3. Speak to Someone
If your health anxiety persists, then it can be really useful to speak with someone you trust.
Sometimes just vocalizing your worries can help to put them into perspective. Together with gathering evidence from your diary, you can clearly see if there are any links between how you’re feeling and what else is going on in your life.
4. Try Self-Help Tools
The Mental Wellbeing Toolkit addresses a wide range of factors influencing anxiety and depression. With regards to health anxiety, you will find The Thinking Slow Method particularly useful, with its emphasis on understanding and reducing rumination. Use this step-by-step guide to improve your overall mental health and wellbeing.
5. Seek Professional Help
If your health anxiety persists and starts to interfere with your everyday life, then seek professional assistance.
In addition, your pharmacist or GP can usually run some simple tests that will help rule out anything serious and will give you some reassurance.
- It’s perfectly normal to have some degree of anxiety – it’s our bodies’ first defense mechanism to keep us safe from a perceived threat or danger. However, sometimes it can get a bit out of balance and start to become a problem in its own right.
- Writing things down is a great way to get some perspective. That headache that you think you have every day might only be once a week on a Friday night!
- It's easier said than done, but try to avoid health related news. Also, try to avoid 'googling' your symptoms.
- Invest in self-care. Seek out relaxing activities that you know you will enjoy and which will provide a welcome distraction.
- Speak with friends, try self-help, and ask for professional help if you need it - this can help put your worries into perspective and develop your skills for managing mental wellbeing.
Rebecca is an experienced life and health and wellbeing coach based in the English Lake District. She established Space and Clarity Coaching in 2018 and works with clients to support them to make lasting and impactful changes to their lifestyles and health and wellbeing. She offers both online and face-to-face 1:1 coaching or small group coaching programmes. She originally trained with Barefoot Coaching and also completed a health coaching qualification in 2021. She is a member of the International Coaching Federation and the Personalised Care Institute, which means she is qualified to work as a health coach within the NHS.