Is this health anxiety or are these normal worries during COVID19?

By Jess Hayes - 21/09/2020

Right now, everywhere you look has messages informing you that you might catch a pretty serious illness. Perhaps you tried to reassure yourself at first that things were being exaggerated and that worked for a while? But then the world locked down. And then the messages continued; not for a few weeks, but for months. Maybe this isn’t the first time you have been preoccupied about something being seriously wrong, and the current situation has undone how hard you have worked at trying to convince yourself that you were okay? Or perhaps you have managed health-related anxiety by avoiding medical shows or news but all of a sudden, this news is everywhere and your coping strategy no longer works for you?

Health anxiety (sometimes known as hypochondria) refers to experiencing high levels of distress thinking that something serious is physically wrong with you. You might experience real physical health symptoms, but worrying about these likely causes you a lot of anxiety and occupies your thoughts a lot. The worries often dominate your thoughts and you might try to get reassurance from; health professionals, the internet, and people around you. Some key thoughts might include;

  • ‘What if my headache means I have a brain tumour?’
  • ‘What if the doctor missed something?’
  • ‘I know something is wrong, I don’t feel right’
  • ‘I think my memory is getting worse, what if I am developing dementia?’

Getting these thoughts occasionally can be pretty normal and they might occupy your attention a little. If you get these thoughts often, focus on them a lot, and become worried a lot of the time, this is when they are more likely linked to health anxiety. Right now, it can be even more difficult to tell whether you are struggling with this or whether you are following the government guidelines to be vigilant with any physical health symptoms. Here are some questions to ask yourself to try and decide whether you might need some support:

  • Are worries about your health on your mind a lot?
  • Do you find yourself seeking reassurance through things like Google or asking friends?
  • Even if you get reassurance, do you still feel the same worry?
  • Has this been going on even outside of the pandemic?
  • Do you tend to pay close attention to your body and pick up on signs that things don’t look or feel ‘normal’ often?
  • Do you either make repeated appointments with health professionals, or completely avoid getting someone to check your physical symptoms?
  • Have you found yourself avoiding medical news or t.v shows about medicine in case they increased your worries?

As with most difficulties with your emotional wellbeing, something that should guide your decision about whether you should get help is to think about how much this impacts on your day-to-day life. If it does, and you feel anxious a lot of the time, there is help available. One of the key recommended treatment approaches for this is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

What might CBT for health anxiety involve?

CBT is based on the concept that our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and responses (behaviours) impact each other and can often form pretty vicious cycles that can keep problems going. The cycles are often formed gradually and can start with things that help us to cope, but then these might turn unhelpful and lead us to get stuck and reinforce them.

In the case of health anxiety, CBT will often start with helping you to understand anxiety and then, together with your therapist, you will unpick what your version of these vicious cycles looks like. Part of a health anxiety cycle often involves the person learning to hone in on physical sensations and then misinterpret them, and then to respond to them in a way that can exacerbate both the thoughts and the physical sensations. This leads to anxiety and behaviours to try and manage the anxiety that might reinforce the worries too.

CBT is a proactive therapeutic approach, so you and your therapist will both work hard to understand what is going on for you right now and then will test out ways to break these cycles and learn to distinguish between a physical symptom that might need further investigation, and one that has been worsened by the anxiety itself. Throughout the process, you can also learn to not be as triggered by medical information, which is really important when physical health is such a big topic of conversation right now.

Further information and resources

To get support, you can speak to your GP to ask whether you might have health anxiety, and to see if you can access therapy through the NHS. You can also look for private therapy or check out local charities to see what help they can offer.

ReImagine Therapy provides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for health anxiety, in addition to numerous other difficulties. You can get in touch for a free phone call to discuss your concerns if you think you might have health anxiety and Jessica Hayes will be open and honest with you about what help you might want to look into, regardless of whether you choose to go with this service:

Some further information on health anxiety, getting support, and also self-help resources;