How to Manage Health Anxiety about COVID-19
More people are struggling with Health Anxiety during the Pandemic than they did before. Health Anxiety is mental health issue characterised by excessive worries and precautions about one’s health. It is an issue that, if left unchecked, can seriously impact our ability to function and live a fulfilling life. Continue reading to learn more about the telling signs that you, or someone you know, might experience health anxiety and a few tips to start managing it!
Health Anxiety and Covid-19
During the Pandemic, with Covid-19 spreading rapidly, average anxiety levels have increased, accompanied by more diffused avoidance behaviours. For example, avoiding news stories, getting out for groceries and meeting people altogether even when permitted by the law. Avoidance, which involves efforts to move and stay away from what we perceive as a threat, is a crucial factor connected with maintaining and making anxiety worse.
It is only normal that anxiety levels and avoidance would increase when a real threat to individual and public health exists. However, Health Anxiety, a particular type of anxiety characterised by excessive worry about one’s health, has experienced a substantial increase.
Recent studies (Kızılkurt et al., 2021) have shown that average Health Anxiety scores have increased during the pandemic period. Those with pre-existing Health Anxiety have seen their anxiety levels rise. Some may have developed health anxiety due to the Pandemic.
Is Health Anxiety making us worry too much?
During the Pandemic, some of the behaviours we engage with, which may be Health Anxiety signals, are excessive hand washing, social withdrawal, and stockpiling/over-shopping for non-needed items.
Some of these behaviours are in line with public health guidance (e.g., hand washing and social distancing). Nonetheless, they can become particularly excessive and extreme in people with health anxiety. When this happens, the line between helpful and unhelpful may be crossed, bringing more psychological struggle.
Taking care of ourselves is a very subjective matter, and it’s hard to define when we’re doing too much of it. Nonetheless, handwashing, social withdrawal, symptoms checking, and other behaviours that can be seen as ”normal”, especially in a Pandemic, may become maladaptive and unhelpful.
When we experience Health Anxiety, these protective behaviours start to take a big chunk of our time, constant worries fill up our minds, and we experience heightened psychological distress impacting various areas of our lives.
Signs of Health Anxiety about COVID-19
1- Excessive Worry and Catastrophic Beliefs
It is natural for all of us to worry to some extent about COVID-19. It is a virus that spreads quickly, and it has very sadly resulted in many deaths worldwide. As we mentioned, what separates ”normal” levels of anxiety from heightened ones in those with Health Anxiety is that the people with Health Anxiety tend to worry excessively about themselves or others catching COVID-19. Furthermore, people with health anxiety overestimate the likelihood of catching the virus. They often fear that it could be severe or deadly if they or others did contract the illness. These beliefs lead to intense, unpleasant feelings of anxiety and associated physical symptoms, such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath and muscle tension.
As COVID-19 has a significant effect on our lives, it is normal to keep ourselves informed on the current situation by watching the news and reading articles centred around the Pandemic. However, one sign that someone may have Health Anxiety is if they do this very regularly and for long periods. They may also find themselves drawn to tragic news stories about COVID-19, which heightens anxiety levels.
3- Excessive Focus and Misinterpretation of Body Noise
If we were to develop a sore throat or cough, it is natural to attend to this and wonder if these are symptoms of COVID-19. However, those with Health Anxiety may tend to be overly focused on their bodies and physical symptoms, whether or not they are experiencing COVID-19 related symptoms. They may interpret normal ”body noise” (it is normal to feel twinges, tension etc., in our bodies which are non-harmful) as signs of COVID-19. Moreover, research showed that if we focus on our bodies and have pre-existing worries, we can experience harmless weird physical symptoms. However, those with Health Anxiety may readily interpret these sensations as signs they have COVID-19 (or other illnesses). When physical symptoms are detected by those suffering from Health Anxiety, other possible explanations are often overlooked.
4- Frequently Researching their Symptoms Online & Worse-Case Scenarios
If someone develops unpleasant physical symptoms, it is sensible to conduct some research, perhaps by searching their symptoms on the internet to see if they are linked to COVID-19. Those with Health Anxiety may do just that. However, they may tend to research their symptoms frequently and for an extended period. It is common for those with Health Anxiety to hone in on worst-case scenario information and disregard other, more balanced scenarios, which raises anxiety levels.
5- Reassurance Seeking & Constantly Talking about COVID-19
If symptoms are detected that seem like they could be COVID-19 related, it is natural to discuss this with those around us and perhaps have a COVID-19 test. However, those with Health Anxiety may go far beyond this by bringing up the topic repeatedly with others making it dominate conversations. This tendency is fuelled by their anxieties and wishing to gain reassurance. Those with Health Anxiety may find themselves having numerous COVID-19 tests and perhaps speaking to Doctors several times about their health concerns to gain further reassurance and relief. Some people even pay lots of money to see private specialists for second, third and fourth opinions in case the doctors have missed something or got it wrong. However, this can all serve to exacerbate anxieties by focusing on the topic excessively. The relief gained from seeking reassurance is often short-lived, which leads the person to seek reassurance time and time again.
6- Avoiding all Things COVID-19
Other people with Health Anxiety may find themselves doing the opposite of some of the things above, where they engage in avoidance due to the high levels of anxiety they elicit. For example, they may avoid talking about COVID-19. They may avoid speaking to Doctors even though it could help to do so, and they may avoid any news related to COVID-19.
7- Taking Extra Precautions
Government guidelines have suggested we restrict leaving the house, minimising social contact, sanitising our hands regularly, etc. The guidelines are understandably stricter for those who are deemed vulnerable. Whilst these are sensible guidelines for us all to follow, those with Health Anxiety may take extra precautions beyond this due to their fears. For example, even though they may not fall into the vulnerable category, they may highly restrict leaving the house and going to places. They may also wash their hands for prolonged periods and very regularly. People with Health Anxiety may leave the house when things are likely to be quieter, and thus there will be less human contact, e.g. late at night or early in the morning.
Although these may seem sensible behaviours, which many people are doing, the difference lies in the extent to which these are done. Additionally, suppose someone engages in these extra precautions and demonstrates the other signs of Health Anxiety outlined earlier. In that case, this is suggestive that the individual is experiencing Health Anxiety.
8- Experiencing High Levels of Anxiety Impacting their Lives
Many people experience anxieties around COVID-19 which can have a detrimental impact on their lives by, for example, affecting sleep. What separates this from those with Health Anxiety is that the latter experience excessive worries and high anxiety levels, which dominate their lives. It may become the main topic of conversations and make it difficult for them to continue with day-to-day activities.
Tips on how to manage Health Anxiety about Covid-19
1- Less Air Time
Give it less air time! Limit the amount of time given to watching the news, reading articles and talking about COVID-19.
2- Contain Reassurance Seeking Behaviours
Stop/reduce reassurance seeking. Refrain from relief-seeking from friends, family, doctors and only take a COVID-19 test if advised to do so by your GP or the NHS.
3- Reduce Online Symptoms Checking
Tackle excessive checking. For example, research physical symptoms you think may be COVID-19 related only if you display the common signs of COVID-19. Limit the amount of time you do this and only read information from reputable sources.
4- Challenge Your Worrying Thoughts
Address worries. Learn to identify these and write them down, and question them. Ask yourself; Am I thinking of the worst-case scenario? Are there other possible explanations for this? If I was calmer, would I be thinking this way or something alternative? Am I over-estimating the likelihood of something terrible happening and over-estimating how bad it will be?
5- Practice Mindfulness
Once you can challenge your intense worries, try shifting your attention. For example, try distracting yourself and engaging in activities mindfully (by doing one thing at a time, paying attention to the details in your different senses, letting go of judgments). If you find your focus of attention on your physical sensations, when this occurs, move your attention externally and engage in activities mindfully. You may also like to practice a guided meditation from an app or YouTube video.
6- Increase Your Relaxation Levels
De-stress! Being more relaxed can make us less vulnerable to Health Anxiety. Discover relaxing activities and incorporate these into your days, e.g. having a bath, going for a walk, watch your favourite t.v. programme, meditate
7- Confront your Fears
If you have been avoiding situations due to anxiety, gradually face these. In time your anxiety levels will reduce.
8- If you Keep Struggling, Reach out for Professional Health!
It’s not your fault to feel anxious. If you’re experiencing Health Anxiety, it may be particularly tricky to tackle this on your own, especially during a pandemic. If you’re noticing you’re struggling and your life has been impacted, it could be a good idea to ask for professional help. For example, contact your GP, dial 111 or get in touch with us for Health Anxiety Therapy. We also offer a free 15 min phone consultation!
 Kazan Kızılkurt, O., Yılmaz, A., Noyan, C. O., & Dilbaz, N. (2020). Health anxiety during the early phases of COVID‐19 Pandemic in Turkey and its relationship with postpandemic attitudes, hopelessness, and psychological resilience. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care.