COVID-19 has definitely increased our anxiety about health.
Considering the severity of the pandemic we can say that some of this anxiety is necessary and even a good thing. It pushes us to make good decisions, like wearing masks, washing our hands more frequently and practicing social distancing.
The difference between normal or mild health anxiety and problematic health anxiety is that the latter is more distressing and likely interferes with your life. It might get in your way of doing your day-to-day activities, like working. It could cause problems in your relationships or sleep difficulties too.
If you are someone with very high health anxiety remember that behavior changes can help you manage it. Here are four solutions to common health anxiety behaviors:
1. Avoid health websites
A person in the midst of a severe health anxiety is recommended to avoid health websites. Using the internet to diagnose yourself can be highly anxiety-producing but it’s so common now that there is a name for it, cyberchondria.
On the internet, any pain or usual symptom can often be found to be a symptom of something serious. While many people have successfully used the internet to accurately self-diagnose, those with high levels of health anxiety should keep their health-related internet searches limited.
2. Don’t fall into the ‘Reassurance trap’
Another problematic behavior associated with health anxiety is excessive reassurance seeking. For example, you might ask a significant other or family member for reassurance about a symptom. For instance, “I just coughed, do you think I have COVID-19?” The main problem with this strategy is that the seeker can become overly reliant on reassurance, and they don’t learn how to tolerate their anxiety on their own.
Asking for reassurance can cause your anxiety to decrease in the moment, which feels good. Unfortunately, it sets you up to ask for more reassurance the next time you feel anxious, and you may get caught in a vicious cycle. Similarly, people can become frequent visitors at the doctor’s office as a means of reassurance seeking.
Hence, it’s best to tolerate your anxiety without asking for reassurance and to remind yourself that the anxiety will eventually pass on its own.
3. Avoid focusing on it too much
A common practice of people with health anxiety is to monitor symptoms or their body like checking the pulse.
The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, by paying attention to the symptoms you are inadvertently reinforcing both the symptoms and the anxiety. It is almost as though you are saying to yourself, ‘I must pay attention to this sensation because something is wrong with me.’
Second, when you pay attention to sensations you are bound to notice them more. Many people with health anxiety believe that they need to monitor their body, lest they will miss catching something important. However, if you actually have COVID-19 or a heart attack, your body will let you know without you having to closely monitor it. If you notice yourself focusing on body sensations, redirect your attention to something in your external environment like a picture on the wall, the mess on your desk or a tree.
4. Make small changes in your routine
If you are worried about your health, ask yourself if there are any meaningful changes that you can bring about, including eating a healthier diet, increasing exercise, consuming less alcohol, and/or practicing good sleep routine. Consult with your doctor if needed. If you are feeling lonely or isolated, reach out to old friends or start a new hobby. Making these types of changes can be empowering and they can help lower your anxiety.
Please note that not all health anxiety is baseless and sometimes you will have an actual illness. However, you can still use these guidelines to manage your anxiety even when you are sick. And when you are healthy, using these principles will help free you from thinking that you are sick.