We all worry about our health from time-to-time. We see somebody on television with a serious health condition and suddenly worry whether we have the same condition. Worrying about our health can sometimes be useful. It can push us to make positive lifestyle changes; such as exercising more frequently or eating healthier food.
For some people, these health worries can become excessive, cause distress and interfere in their day-to-day lives. People who experience these excessive health worries may regularly check their body for signs of illness or disease. They may also frequently seek reassurance from doctors, family members, or the internet. This reassurance seeking can take long periods of time and, in the long term, leads to more anxiety. In other cases, people who are anxious about their health may avoid things that make them think about their health, such as television (e.g. hospital dramas) or social situations (e.g. discussion around health).
A real world example
John often notices strange sensations in his body that he worries may be signs of a serious illness. Recently, he was having headaches and worried that this was a sign that he had a brain tumor. He typed his symptoms into Google and came across a case of a man his age who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor after experiencing headaches. He looked up the the symptoms of a brain tumor online and noticed that he was experiencing some of the symptoms (e.g. headaches). As he was so anxious, he overlooked the symptoms that he wasn’t experiencing (e.g. seizures).
John began to worry even more: “What if it is a brain tumor?” “What will happen to my wife if I die?” “How will my family cope?” John spent long periods of his day worrying about these possibilities. He began to take time off work because of the anxiety and stress that he was experiencing.
John visited his doctor about his headaches and voiced his worries that he had a brain tumor. Despite reassurance from his doctor that he did not have a brain tumor, John thought that the doctor may have missed something. It’s not uncommon for John to visit many doctors about the same issue.
What to do
The most effective way to treat health anxiety is with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Cognitive beahvioural therapy is a talking therapy that aims to improve how you feel by changing how you think and act. In CBT, therapist works closely with the client to identify thoughts and behaviours that may be leading to anxiety.
In the case above, John is feeling anxious because of the thoughts he is having (e.g. “I have a brain tumor”). These thoughts are leading him to behave in particular ways (e.g. searching the internet for his symptoms) that lead to more negative thoughts and negative feelings.
In CBT, the therapist would work with John to try and break the negative cycle of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Together, John and the therapist may explore other possible explanations for his symptoms. For example, could it be stress and anxiety that are causing the headaches? Could the regular doctor visits be causing John to be more anxious, rather than less?
Homework is an important part of CBT. The therapist may encourage John to stop looking up his symptoms on the internet. Or ask him to use a weekly diary to track all occasions when he has interpreted a body sensation as being a sign of illness.
If you’d like to find out more about CBT for health anxiety then please contact us.
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