A recent health crisis with my son, Tim, has raised my awareness of the anxiety many experience regarding health. The hardest part for my family right now is waiting for Tim’s weekly blood test results, which determine the need for further testing.
I believe we all know the sense of helplessness that comes with waiting, be it for a pathology report on a biopsy, the results of the latest mammogram, or waiting for an appointment with a specialist. We wait, we worry, we pray.
There are two types of anxiety related to health.
The first type occurs when there is a known health problem, with self or someone else, and there is worry about one’s ability to survive.
An example of this is someone whose cancer is in remission, and there is worry that it will reoccur.
The second type is a more generalized anxiety in response to what are often benign symptoms. This type of chronic anxiety can limit one’s activity and cause undue stress on relationships, finances and work. It can also inhibit a person’s ability to relax, to eat or sleep.
An individual with chronic health anxiety might be so tuned into body sensations that the body is often in fight or flight mode. The body’s over-aroused alarm system causes a release of cortisol and other stress hormones that make the symptoms worse.
Past medical experiences, illness in others, deaths or a family history of anxiety can make a person more prone to health anxiety. The media, by calling attention to potentially fatal pathogens and illnesses, can exacerbate one’s health-related concerns.
A person might seek out a variety of doctors or continually search the Internet to determine the cause of each new symptom or to seek reassurance that nothing is seriously wrong.
What can you do if you are plagued by health anxiety? First of all, pay attention to the kind of thoughts you are having. Does your mind focus on the worst-case scenario and ignore other probabilities?
This is called catastrophizing.
Ask yourself, what is the evidence that this is true? If it is true, what steps do I need to take to manage whatever is wrong? Most of us either overestimate the likelihood that something serious is actually wrong, or underestimate our ability to deal with it if it is.
Distraction techniques are often helpful. When worrying, try to look around and name five things you see, five sounds you hear, and five things you can touch. Then name four of these, then three, then two, then one. This technique, called grounding, brings attention away from internal sensations to the external environment.
For more ideas on how to manage health anxiety, contact your doctor or a mental health provider.
Mary Bieda, MS, LPC is a licensed professional counselor and pastoral counselor in private practice in Old Town Bluffton.