Your alarm goes off, and as you turn over to press snooze on your cell, you’re hit with a pounding headache behind your temples. Suddenly, sleep is the least of your worries. Why does your head hurt? Shouldn’t you feel perfect and well-rested after eight hours of sleep? Regardless, you crawl out of bed and chug a bottle of water and three Advil – your usual breakfast when another strong symptom arises early in the morning.
Sitting in class, your head still mimics your headache from earlier, and you can hardly focus on taking notes. Why is your head still hurting even after you drank water and took pain medication? Beneath your desk, you Google search “causes of a headache” and are bombarded with hundreds of diagnoses – blood clot, stroke, and brain tumor being the most concerning. Immediately, your heartbeat increases with anxiety, causing your vision to blur slightly. Is dizziness also a symptom of a brain tumor? Are you about to pass out in front of everyone? Quickly, you grab your backpack and escape the lecture hall without even staying long enough for attendance.
Your friends invited you out to dinner between class and work, but another symptom of a brain tumor is vomiting, and you don’t want to risk embarrassing yourself in public. Instead of fueling your body with food, you swallow a couple more Advil in hopes of knocking your headache.
You know you have to be up early tomorrow, but sleep is hardly an option. Laying in bed, you can’t take your mind off your symptoms; a headache, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue. Three separate times you check your symptoms online and see them match with deadly diseases and cancers, and the anxiety fuels your insomnia even more. Despite all the normal reasons for these daily bodily sensations, you fear the worst and spend the rest of the night with a racing heart and shaking hands.
Everyone worries about their health occasionally, but not everyone becomes a slave to their health anxieties. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), hypochondria, or healthy anxiety, is defined as, “the belief that one has, or is in danger of developing a serious illness.” To me, it is defined as my freshman year of college. Any average, everyday bodily sensation I experienced was evidence of cancer that was lurking unknown in my body. Headaches, stomach aches, cramps, dizziness, chest pains, and nausea set off an internal alarm, causing major anxiety that prevented me from social events, dinners with friends, or large lecture halls. There wasn’t anything that anyone could say that could convince me I was being paranoid – I truly believed I had some kind of illness that was left undiagnosed.
I am happy to say that I haven’t experienced an episode onset by hypochondria in over two years, but that doesn’t change the fact that I lost a year of potential opportunities due to my anxiety. For the most part, I didn’t even realize that what I had was a diagnosable mental condition, and thus didn’t look for ways to treat myself or acknowledge that I had a problem. Once I came to terms with the fact that it was my mind causing me stress and not my body, I used three solutions to help overcome what I thought I never could.
1. Identify and acknowledge your triggers
Many hypochondriacs are focused on their health a majority of the time, but certain aspects of their life can bring their otherwise-distracted attention back onto their anxieties. Overly stressful situations can activate the body’s natural anxiety mechanisms, such as increased heartbeat, dizziness, sweating, and shortness of breath, which encourages a dangerous cycle – hypochondriacs might mistake these as symptoms of an unknown illness, sparking panic. I used to keep a tab open on my phone of WebMD, and whenever I used my phone (which was a lot), I immediately saw the tab and became hypersensitive to what my body was feeling. Did my chest hurt? Was I having shortness of breath? If I noticed anything out of the ordinary, anxiety would immediately spring to action.
Don’t allow yourself to be put in situations where you may experience intense anxiety that could be interpreted as health concerns. If that means deleting the symptom checker app on your phone, skipping a school concert, or refraining from discussing your symptoms with a friend, so be it. The less you are reminded of your anxiety, the more you can begin to control it.
2. Focus on your health, not your health anxieties
The more kindly you treat your body, the more kindly it will treat you. This is evident in so many studies linking exercise and anxiety, including one noted by Dr. Michael Otto, a professor of psychology as well as the author of the book, Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being. In this 10-week study, patients diagnosed with panic disorder were asked to exercise for 30-40 minutes a day, three times a week. The results concluded that by the end of 10 weeks, exercise served the same benefit as taking the prescription drug, clomipramine. The causes behind this lie in a neurotransmitter called cortisol, which is released in the brain during the “fight or flight” response commonly associated with anxiety. Basically, cortisol is released to give you the adrenaline you need to either run away or fight, and when neither of those happens your basic anxiety symptoms arise.
Almost all patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders have an excess amount of cortisol in their brains. Inactivity can also lead to a weakened immune system, which can encourage viruses like the common cold. This might not be a huge threat to those without health anxiety, but to a hypochondriac, any symptom of sickness could be misinterpreted as something much more dangerous.
Basically, cortisol is released to give you the adrenaline you need to either run away or fight, and when neither of those happens your basic anxiety symptoms arise. Almost all patients diagnosed with anxiety disorders have an excess amount of cortisol in their brains. Inactivity can also lead to a weakened immune system, which can encourage viruses like the common cold. This might not be a huge threat to those without health anxiety, but to a hypochondriac, any symptom of sickness could be misinterpreted as something much more dangerous.
I realized that during my most difficult hypochondriac period I was rarely eating, and when I was, it was Chick-fil-A sandwiches and pizza from the school’s student unions. Samantha Durland, a physician who specializes in women’s health, says that eighty percent of how you feel is linked to what you eat. Not only that but focusing on your diet and exercise helps you trust and become in-tune with your body. The more you can recognize how you feel realistically versus during a health-induced panic attack, the easier it will be to gain control.
3. Look for help both mentally and physically
To many hypochondriacs, health anxiety is not considered a mental disorder, but a problem with the body. This is because the anxiety felt from these health concerns creates actual, physical symptoms. It is very common for patients to see their doctors over and over again when worried about certain symptoms. When doctors reassure them that everything is fine, they might believe the doctor had misdiagnosed them, and return multiple times. I am guilty of this. After being diagnosed with a simple infection during school, I immediately thought the doctor I saw misinterpreted my symptoms, and that I wasn’t so safe – after all, I was convinced I had a serious illness. This lead to me returning three times with the same symptoms, claiming the antibiotics weren’t working, etc. Health anxiety is not a problem physically, but occasionally, seeing a doctor for a checkup might reassure you that everything is working smoothly, as long as you trust their expertise. Otherwise, focus on the mental aspect of the disorder and see a psychologist who specializes in finding ways to help you acknowledge that everything is in your head.
This type of health anxiety is not a problem physically, but occasionally, seeing a doctor for a checkup might reassure you that everything is working smoothly, as long as you trust their expertise. Otherwise, focus on the mental aspect of the disorder and see a psychologist who specializes in finding ways to help you acknowledge that everything is in your head.
Healthy anxiety is a less popular form of anxiety, but just as overwhelming, debilitating and real. Constantly worrying about whether your body is hiding a serious medical condition is exhausting, but recognizing your health anxiety for what it is and treating it as such can help you experience a life webMD-free.
Goodman, Ken. “Health Anxiety.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. ADAA, Sept. 2016. Web. 25 July 2017.
Smits, Jasper. “Exercise for Anxiety.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 July 2017.