Is your mind filled with worries? Do you feel like your wellbeing is at stake? Do you tend to devote a lot of time to researching your symptoms? It’s normal to worry about health from time to time. Still, if you do it excessively, it might indicate you’re dealing with health anxiety.
Soon you might even start worrying that it will never go away, and you wonder whether it’s possible to break the cycle of health anxiety. The short answer is yes. In this blog, you’ll find out more about health anxiety, what keeps it going and how to manage it.
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is a mental health issue that involves excessive worry about your health. While it’s normal to be concerned about your wellbeing occasionally, if you have health anxiety, it’s likely that you frequently misinterpret body sensations. You might see every signal from your body as a potential threat and may regularly seek reassurance from health professionals. If this sounds like you, you may often wonder whether anxiety will ever go away, in other words, whether it’s possible to break the cycle of health anxiety. Keep reading as we give an answer to this very question!
The Vicious Cycle of Health Anxiety
When you constantly worry about your health, you start engaging in behaviours that you believe have the potential to bring instant relief from anxiety. For example, researching your symptoms online or contacting a doctor for reassurance. While this can sometimes be a short-term solution, when a new symptom or sign from your body arises, it will make you anxious again, reactivating the cycle. This is called the vicious cycle of health anxiety. The vicious cycle of anxiety is maintained by negative interpretations of bodily sensations.
Imagine that you wake up with pain in your back. You might jump to conclusions such as; ‘I probably have a slipped disc’ or ‘I must have arthritis’. You might also catastrophise the information given to you by the doctors. For example, suppose you’re told it’s probably just a strain and advised to rest your back for a few days. In that case, you might start believing there must be something seriously wrong with your back if even doctors can’t find the exact cause. When a new symptom appears in the future, it might trigger these unhelpful thoughts and, in turn, activate anxiety that can further fuel your health concerns. The vicious cycle affects your life and the people around you too. You might stop participating in certain activities for fear of making your symptoms worse. You might isolate yourself from your loved ones, who will struggle to understand your concerns.
Developing new coping strategies can help learn how to break the cycle of health anxiety. This happens via challenging and replacing unhelpful thoughts and contributing to setting in a virtuous cycle, where repeating healthy behaviours will increase your mental wellbeing. Every time you practice a coping skill, you decrease the anxiety and unlearn unhealthy strategies and teach yourself to respond in new ways. For example, you might learn to replace worst-case scenarios with more realistic beliefs. Suppose you replace a catastrophic thought such as: “My back is going to be injured forever”, with a more balanced belief like: “My symptom is most likely a result of stress or sleeping in an awkward position”. In that case, you will lessen the distress and train your brain to notice and tackle unhelpful thoughts across other situations. Engaging in helpful, sustainable behaviours generates positive results such as gaining a more realistic perspective and strengthening the virtuous cycle. You can find out more about managing health anxiety below.
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Is It Possible To Break The Cycle of Health Anxiety?
Breaking the cycle of health anxiety is possible. The first step is recognising what keeps the health anxiety going and addressing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours, which can be done with the help of a trained therapist. The next step is targeting these thoughts and replacing them with more realistic assumptions that will decrease unhealthy behaviours. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to say goodbye to the anxious you and regain a sense of agency over your life. Keep on reading to find out more.
Keep in Check your Self-Checking
Whenever you experience new symptoms, it might be tempting to make an appointment with a doctor or reach out for advice on a forum to put your mind at ease. At the same time, you might try to reduce the distress by engaging in self-checking. You might frequently examine your body for signs of rashes, check urine for signs of blood, measure your temperature etc. While seeking reassurance can temporarily alleviate the distress, it only makes the cycle of health anxiety stronger in the long term. Feeding your worries will only make them stronger.
To reduce self-monitoring, it’s first essential to understand that checking for signs that there’s something wrong with your body will make your mind focused on all negative possibilities and only add to the problem. It might even act as a self-fulling prophecy. Excessively paying attention to your symptoms and believing they’re linked to a severe health problem might worsen your situation, keeping your health anxiety cycle going. For example, if you’re experiencing back pain and imagine worst-case scenarios, your distress might increase and lead to muscle tension that will, in turn, result in more pain. One study investigating the relationship between catastrophising thoughts, bodily sensations and physical symptoms found that hyperattention to body signals is associated with more distressing symptoms. 
An excellent way to minimise self-checking is to critically evaluate your behaviour instead of focusing on the negatives. Ask yourself, what are the advantages and disadvantages of self-checking? Consider this example: if you check for signs of a rash because everyone in your family has eczema, you might believe noticing the symptoms early will give you an advantage and allow you to access the best treatment options. However, one of the causes of eczema is stress and checking for its signs might be what triggers it in the first place because of the increased stress. Similarly, constantly checking your body for signs of diseases is time-consuming and can cost you a lot of money. If you excessively worry about your health, you might struggle to focus on work and underperform, which might even cost you your job. This might also have an impact on your relationships. You might feel misunderstood and prioritise researching your symptoms instead of prioritising your partner, which can lead to a lot of tension and possibly a breakup.
Challenge Your Worrying Thoughts
One of the ways the cycle of health anxiety is maintained is by experiencing unhelpful thoughts. People with health anxiety interpret physical symptoms as threatening and come up with worst-case scenarios. Imagine that you experience a new pain. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Do you tend to jump to conclusions and worry that the symptom might indicate a serious, even incurable disease? These kinds of assumptions reinforce the anxiety and increase the obsessive self-checking mentioned above. You essentially teach your brain that discomfort or unusual bodily signals equal serious illness when you let yourself worry.
Worrying about your health might also trigger your body’s fight or flight response that comes with its own physical symptoms. For example, muscular tension, increased heart and breathing rates, lightheadedness, and stomachache. These symptoms can further increase your anxiety. To challenge your thoughts, write down a health problem you’re worried about and try to come up with what’s most likely causing it. For example, if you experience stomachache, remind yourself it’s a common symptom of stress, and it’s unlikely to be a sign of cancer or another severe disease. Attributing your symptoms to serious illnesses is known as somatosensory catastrophising. Catastrophising is a cognitive distortion that generates negative feelings such as anxiety, low mood, and fear. Dealing with such negative emotions might encourage you to engage in behaviours meant to lessen them but which only fuel the vicious cycle of anxiety. We’re written another article on cognitive distortions (or thinking errors), which you might find helpful!
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Finding Treatment for Health Anxiety
Health anxiety is a condition that can impair everyday functioning. If you don’t seek professional help, the symptoms might escalate and start affecting every area of your life. The proper treatment will teach you about the nature of your health anxiety to help you recognise unhealthy behaviours and unhelpful thoughts. Then, you’ll learn new coping skills and how to tolerate the uncertainty (e.g., reducing or refraining from looking up your symptoms or contacting a doctor).
One of the most popular forms of treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This approach is one of the most effective to learn how to break the cycle of health anxiety. CBT will help you understand the link between your thoughts, behaviours and the anxiety they fuel. CBT is one of the most efficient ways to learn how to break the cycle of health anxiety. For example, you’ll understand that catastrophising can lead to safety behaviours that trigger anxiety and increase it in the long run. Your therapist will help you break this cycle by encouraging you to challenge negative thoughts and helping you replace them with more realistic and helpful views. You’ll also learn to work with uncertainty specifically about your health and decrease self-checking and reassurance-seeking behaviours.
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Tips To Manage the Everyday Challenges of your Health Anxiety Cycle
Educate your loved ones
Having a good support network can be crucial in dealing with mental health problems, but it’s important to know what’s helpful and what isn’t. When your loved ones understand the nature and implications of health anxiety, they can discourage your worry and self-monitoring behaviours. You can start by describing your health anxiety symptoms and how they affect your day-to-day life. Once your loved ones understand how it affects you, you can explain how the vicious cycle of anxiety works and why it’s so challenging to break away from its grip. You can also send them articles that describe what living with health anxiety is like. For example, How I Wish People Would Treat Me When I Open Up About My Health Anxiety. You could also send them resources dedicated to families of those suffering from health anxiety, such as; 10 Tips To Help A Loved One Cope With Illness Anxiety.
Make sure you prepare for stressful events in advance
Events such as holidays, business parties or family gatherings can be extremely stressful even for someone who isn’t dealing with health anxiety. You might think that a holiday or seeing your loved ones is just what you need to have a break from your symptoms, but it can trigger a lot of your worries. The extra stress might make it difficult not to relapse and rely on your safety behaviours. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on your plans but try to prepare for them in advance. For example, if you’re planning a holiday, make sure you have the right health insurance and avoid reading the news before and during the trip. If you have to attend an important work meeting, practise relaxation techniques beforehand, which you can rely on if your anxiety is triggered.
Prepare a list of healthy distractions
These can be used to interrupt the cycle of anxiety whether you’re at home or at work. For example, you could aim to go for a walk or write your worries down when you feel distressed. Do something relaxing if you experience mild distress to make relying on it a habit.
Use the Worry-Time Technique
A suitable method to help you break the cycle of health anxiety is also setting aside some time for worrying. When you feel like analysing your health, tell yourself you’ll be allowed to do this later, but now you have to focus on the task at hand. It might seem counterproductive, but this technique is meant to reduce the association between worry and its triggers. For example, if you overthink every time a new symptom appears, each new trigger will also result in worry. Postponing the time spent worrying to a reserved 5-10 minutes space during the day can help you lessen the anxiety in the long run.
Checking for symptoms and consulting doctors isn’t the only way to look out for your health. Make positive changes to your lifestyle and include exercise at least a few times a week. As exercising can clear your mind and decreases muscle tension, it will help you keep your anxiety at bay and increase your overall health.
Get help Breaking the Cycle of Health Anxiety Therapy in London and Online
Health anxiety can severely impact your wellbeing and prevent you from achieving your goals. If you leave it untreated, the problem will only increase and affect more and more areas of your life.
At Therapy Central, we have qualified therapists that specialise in health anxiety therapy, aimed at helping you break away from its vicious cycle and live a more fulfilling life. Contact us for a free 15-min consultation to see if our help would fit your needs.