Can Health Anxiety Cause Physical Symptoms?

Are you constantly worried about being ill? Do you scan your body for anything out of the ordinary? Do you feel like your life has been affected by how preoccupied you’re about your health? Do you experience pains and aches? Health anxiety is a form of excessive (and often unreasonable) worry that makes you engage in behaviours meant to lessen the distress but which can cause physical symptoms and place you in a vicious cycle difficult to escape. If this sounds like you, keep on reading. In this blog, you can learn more about the relationship between health anxiety and physical symptoms, as well as tips to manage it.  

What Is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety is also known as hypochondria, but as this more ‘clinical’ term tends to have a negative connotation, it’s now commonly referred to as health anxiety. When you have health anxiety, you become excessively preoccupied with your health. When you live with health anxiety, you might monitor your body, obsessively research your symptoms, and seek reassurance from mental health professionals. If this sounds familiar, don’t worry, you aren’t alone: around 1 in 20 people experience health anxiety in the UK. [1]

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How Does It Feel To Have Health Anxiety?

The role of your body is to ensure your survival. It keeps you alive by coordinating its functions and signalling problems with new symptoms. Now imagine paying attention to those functions and constantly scanning your body for changes. Suddenly, your heartbeat seems a bit too loud and irregular, and your breathing appears abnormal. You analyse every change that appears on your skin. You begin to associate the unexpected with danger. 

For someone with health anxiety, every change in their body is a sign of abnormality, that something is wrong with them. While the sensations are real, they often lead to unnecessary worries about their health. This prompts them to research their symptoms online and visit doctors for reassurance that doesn’t lessen the anxiety. Eventually, the preoccupation with health might turn into living in constant fear. 

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Worrying About Your Health vs Health Anxiety?

When you notice new symptoms that might indicate a health issue, it’s natural to worry and turn to the Internet to find answers and support before seeing a doctor. Once you’ve been reassured by a health professional, your concerns usually dissipate, and you can go back to calm. However, if you have health anxiety, you might continue dwelling on symptoms and constantly seek medical advice even if your results have come back normal. Health anxiety interferes with your daily life and might lead to engaging in safety behaviours (such as constantly sanitising your hands) and avoidance behaviours (such as avoiding crowded places in fear of catching a virus) that further increase distress. 

Why Does Health Anxiety Cause Physical Symptoms?

When you worry about your health, you begin to monitor suspicious symptoms even if they don’t indicate there’s something wrong. If you focus on something you feel strongly about, your mind becomes preoccupied with it. For example, if you’re trying for a baby, you might feel like you’re suddenly surrounded by families with children. If you break up with a partner, you might find that you notice couples everywhere. Moreover, the more you worry about something, the more your flight-or-fight response is activated, causing stress hormones levels to rise in your body and resulting in physical symptoms. 

Health anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as: 

 – Muscle tension

 – Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or jittery

 – Muscle weakness

 – Chest tightness

 – Headaches

 – Indigestion

Even though the symptoms are real, the preoccupation with them is often exaggerated and might cause them to persist, further fuelling your anxiety. 

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The Vicious Cycle Of Health Anxiety Physical Symptoms

People with health anxiety condition their brain to recognise new symptoms as threatening. Imagine your family member passed away from a disease without previously exhibiting any warning signs. You might become preoccupied with your health and become increasingly focussed on sensations, scanning your body for any signs of danger. When a suspicious symptom finally appears, your anxiety increases. You request medical tests and see multiple doctors hoping you’ll be reassured nothing’s wrong. This brings relief until you become preoccupied with a new illness or notice a new sensation in your body, and the cycle repeats.

At times, health anxiety makes even a doctor’s reassurance not good enough. Thoughts like ‘what if they missed this sign?’; ‘what if mine is a rare disease which the doctors aren’t used to diagnosing?’ can appear, making you more and more anxious and in need of repeated reassurance.

While you’re busy worrying about your health, your personal and professional life might suffer. You might frequently argue with your loved ones because you start spending too much money on private doctors. You might give up on your hobbies because you fear any unnecessary activities will make you ill. You might avoid going to social events to prevent catching a virus and miss work if any of your colleagues show signs of a cold. Before you know it, your health might become your main focus which strains your relationships with people and negatively impacts your career. Health anxiety can be tough to live with.

What Helps with the Physical Symptoms Of Health Anxiety?

Once the medical causes for physical symptoms have been ruled out, it’s important to focus on lessening the anxiety. The best way to deal with health anxiety is to work with a trained clinician, like a clinical or counselling psychologist. CBT is a therapy that can help you reverse the vicious cycle of health anxiety by targeting the thoughts that lead to your distress and the behaviours that further fuel it. For example, you’ll be asked to challenge negative thinking whenever a health concern arises and taught to tolerate the uncertainty. 

CBT will also teach you about the relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. For example, suppose you worry about being ill. In that case, you’ll experience distress that will prompt you to engage in behaviours such as excessively consulting doctors or continuously checking your body for signs of illness. In turn, however, these behaviours may lead to further anxiety instead of relief.

Compared to other therapies, CBT is seen as the most effective treatment for health anxiety. [2] Another great option is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which encourages you to embrace your thoughts and feelings using acceptance and mindfulness strategies. Both treatments are associated with reductions in health anxiety symptoms and decreased emotional distress and physical symptoms. [3]

Tips To Manage the Physical Symptoms Of Health Anxiety

1. Understand the connection between your mind and body

Your mind is a powerful thing. The more you focus on something, the more intense and present and real it seems. To test it, try this simple exercise: take on a standing position and close your eyes. Imagine there’s a huge magnet behind you pulling you back. Notice how your body sways back. Now, imagine that the magnet is your thoughts telling you the symptoms you’re experiencing indicate a health problem. Your body then responds by exacerbating those symptoms, just like it would let a magnet pull it back. 

2. Read about body sensations

It’s normal to experience symptoms that seem off occasionally. You aren’t a machine after all. Our bodies have so many different functions it’s impossible to expect them to be perfect. Try to read more on body sensations and bodily functions to get used to the idea that not every new symptom equals a new problem. For example, you might experience stomach pain after eating food you aren’t used to or muscle pain after sleeping in an awkward position. 

3. Try positive affirmations

It’s not the symptoms but how you think about them contributing to your distress. To challenge catastrophising thoughts, come up with positive statements such as “I’m healthy”, “Physical symptoms don’t equal illness”, “It’s my health anxiety talking, I’m ok!”

4. Learn to redirect your attentio

Try to engage in healthy distractions whenever you feel like you begin fixating on a particular issue. For example, cooking, gardening, or yoga. Make sure you stay in the present and focus your full attention on those activities. 

5. Try a guided meditation

You can find those on YouTube, some of which are specially designed for people struggling with health anxiety. Guided meditation can help you reduce anxiety and ease the impact of some physical symptoms simultaneously. Once you’ve gotten used to this practice, you can further learn to sit with uncomfortable sensations by focussing on your breathing and accepting them without judgement. Try to simply observe or even welcome the sensations as if you were a ‘fly on the wall’. Notice how you can feel even a negative sensation or thought and then redirect your attention to a more comfortable feeling (for example, a part of your body that feels calm, warm, and relaxed). 

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Improving Health Anxiety Symptoms with The Help Of Therapy

If you’re struggling with health anxiety, chances are it interferes with your daily life and prevents you from enjoying it to the fullest. If this happens to you, it may be time to ask for professional help.

At Therapy Central, we have qualified therapists that specialise in health anxiety therapyContact us for a free 15-min consultation to see if our help would fit your needs. 

More Reading 

How to manage Health Anxiety about COVID-19

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