Health anxiety is an obsessive and often irrational worry about suffering from serious medical conditions. It is more formally known as illness anxiety, and used to be known as hypochondriasis.
Someone who suffers from health anxiety will obsess over their health: from their normal body functions to contracting illnesses and diseases. They may frequently visit their physician or spend large amounts of time reading about their symptoms and possible conditions.
In severe cases, health anxiety can become disruptive to a person’s life. It can interfere with their daily activities, hurt their work performance, and even cause strain in relationships. Fortunately, there are ways that you can cope with your health anxiety, including:
- Changing your focus of attention
- Practicing mindfulness
- Challenging your worrisome thoughts
Read on to learn more about each of these coping techniques in further detail alongside treatment options for health anxiety.
Change Your Focus of Attention
People with health anxiety will often focus on a particular part or function of their body. The more they focus on a part of their body, the more they notice physical sensations – which can then trigger worrying thoughts.
These initial thoughts can trigger anxiety, in turn causing additional physical sensations. At this point, the person may begin to believe their anxiety response is further evidence of physical symptoms. You can see how this creates a cycle of worrying. This cycle is known as rumination.
If you feel yourself becoming too focused on a particular worry, it’s important to redirect your attention to something else. One of the most straightforward ways of accomplishing this is to turn your focus to an activity, such as:
- Cleaning a room
- Doing a crossword puzzle
- Painting or drawing
- Going for a hike
Regardless of the activity, the goal is to pay full attention to what you are doing. For example, if you’re gardening, notice the sounds around you. Note how your spade feels as it digs into the soil. Listen to the sloshing sounds of the watering can and feel its weight in your hands. By putting our complete attention into a task, we are able to pull our mind away from our worrisome thoughts.
Sometimes, though, this strategy may be less practical. For example, if you’re lying in bed trying to sleep but find yourself becoming stuck on a particular worry. In these situations, we can learn to practice mindfulness exercises that will help us to break out of our ruminations.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our thoughts, our surroundings, and our actions in a purposeful way. While the practice is rooted in meditation, it has become increasingly useful in therapy.
In fact, the practice of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be highly effective for individuals suffering from health anxiety. So, how can you incorporate mindfulness into your everyday life? There are several exercises you can try.
Mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise
Look around your current surroundings and identify:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
Going through this exercise helps to ground you in the current moment and in the environment. While simple, it can help pull your focus away from ruminating thoughts. It’s also an exercise that can be done anywhere at any time.
Listen To Music
This might seem like too simple of an exercise, but the key is to listen mindfully. What does that mean?
While listening, try not to go right into “autopilot.” Instead, actively listen. Focus on the lyrics, if there are any. Try to identify individual instruments. Visualize the sounds or words in your mind. This exercise can help draw your attention to the present moment.
Practice Guided Meditations
Guided meditations take us through a process of letting go of our thoughts and relaxing our bodies. If you’re struggling with health anxiety, calming your body and mind can help alleviate current physical anxiety symptoms, in turn reducing some of your health worries.
There are a number of options for guided meditations. You can often find a large number of free options on sites like YouTube. Additionally, there are apps available like Calm and Headspace. Find what works best for you and try to regularly practice meditation. Start by aiming for 5-10 minutes, once per day.
Challenge Your Worrying Thoughts
Thoughts are not facts. They are just thoughts and they don’t have to be true or based in reality. However, when we ruminate, we begin to believe our thoughts reflect reality. For example, people with health anxiety may often worry about their heart.
They may think their chest or their heartbeat feels off, leading them to think, “There’s something wrong with my heart.” This can turn into, “I have a serious heart condition.” Eventually, they may even think, “I have a heart condition and I’m going to die.” The problem here is not that they are seriously ill, the problem is that they think they’re seriously ill.
When we ruminate, our thoughts can represent our perceived reality. In other words, we accept our thoughts as facts. Instead, we need to adopt a practice known as cognitive defusion.
Cognitive defusion teaches us to identify and challenge our negative thoughts. Once a thought like, “There’s something wrong with my heart” has been identified, you can challenge and reframe it. For example, thinking instead “I’m only telling myself that there is something wrong with my heart.” This process of identifying and challenging takes practice. It helps to work closely with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist to develop coping techniques.
Finding Treatment for Health Anxiety
Like other anxiety disorders, health anxiety can become debilitating. When your health worries begin to interfere with your life, it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.
At High Focus Centers, we understand that every patient’s needs are different. Our team of mental health experts uses evidence-based treatment strategies, like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and cognitive defusion techniques, to help create a custom program to meet your needs. Additionally, our teletherapy services allow you to receive counseling and therapy from the comfort of your own home.
If you or a family member is struggling with health anxiety, reach out to our team today. We’re here to help you on your path to recovery.