Health anxiety is a growing problem in this time of Dr Google and media coverage of coronavirus.
But how do you know when your concerns about your health may be becoming unhelpfully obsessive and what can you do about it?
There are stories online today about visitors to hospital wards stealing hand sanitiser off the bedside walls. Some supermarkets have sold out of toilet rolls and there are reports of people stockpiling tinned food.
We are currently being told by public health officials that although Covid-19 / Coronavirus is a highly infectious virus, for most of the population it is not highly dangerous. The current information suggests that there are many things that are more likely to kill us – both chronic illnesses and traumatic events – than Covid-19. So why are so many people in such a panic about it?
One reason is that our brains tend to notice novel things more than familiar things. It’s part of our ancient survival instinct which means we’re on high alert to new things in our environment – like an unfamiliar animal or human – until we’re able to evaluate whether or not it poses a threat and how we should respond. It’s not efficient for our brains (or our ‘fight or flight’ responses) if we were to freak out every time we saw something that we’d previously evaluated as being low risk – like a large but herbivorous animal.
We also tend to be not very good at evaluating probabilities or ‘rationally’ changing our behaviour in response. So, for example, we tend to underestimate the probability of things happening in the distant future as a result of lots of intervening events (like, contracting heart disease because we don’t have a healthy lifestyle) and over-estimate the threat of immediate and vivid events like plane crashes.
There may also be specific things that you tend to worry about more as an individual – possibly based on your current or previous health, or your personal experience of friends or family who have had a particular health condition or traumatic event.
So, knowing that we are often quite irrational when it comes to evaluating risk and responding, how can you approach health concerns in a more balanced way?
1. Get specific expert advice on YOUR personal health status and risk profile
Whether we’re talking about your risk of developing a chronic condition, how you should respond to the coronavirus situation, or your consulting Dr Google about a troubling new symptom, you can’t really know if your worries are justified or overblown unless you understand your specific health status.
Some individuals are more at risk of developing certain health conditions and more vulnerable to things like viruses and infections than others. This can be based on your age, gender, any underlying health conditions, and your lifestyle. It’s important that you understand what your PERSONAL risk profile is to help you to manage your health anxiety appropriately. Many symptoms or illnesses should be far less concerning for a fit and healthy young adult than for a very young child or an immunocompromised older person.
The best way to evaluate whether your concerns are appropriate (that you’re neither worrying unnecessarily nor doing to little to address a health concern) is to speak to your GP or another appropriate healthcare professional (e.g. a psychologist for mental health concerns, a physiotherapist for worries about your knee pain).
Try to think about the nature of your health concerns and about who’s best to address them based on their professional expertise. For new and minor symptoms – like a new skin rash or what feels like a minor illness – your local pharmacist is a good bet. They’ll often be able to give you advice and suggest treatment options there and then and you can be confident that if they are at all concerned they’ll recommend that you see your GP.
2. If you must consult the internet try to stick to reputable sources
Dr Google can be very helpful in some cases but in other cases can be confusing, contradictory and health anxiety-generating.
There’s a lot of general information on the main NHS website https://www.nhs.uk/. However, although you can certainly ‘trust’ the information on these sites it’s still fairly general and so it may still make sense to speak to your GP or other appropriate healthcare professional, or to contact NHS 111.
Whether or not it makes sense for you to do further, more detailed research online, depends a little bit on your personality and the level of your health anxiety (which in turn may be difficult for your to self-assess). Sometimes further information and clinical information can be reassuring but in other cases you may just end up more confused and concerned.
If you feel that you’d like to do more research for yourself, the following sites are reputable, evidence-based UK authority sources.
A note on patient support groups and social media
There are thousands of online and offline patient support groups. Whilst many can be very helpful – especially if you’re living with a chronic or serious health condition – it’s really worth considering the credibility of the group.
Whilst getting advice and support from people who have personal experience of a similar health condition can sometimes be invaluable, no two people have an identical health status and it may be that your symptoms or your specific condition is not the same as the person advising you. For example in chronic back pain forums people may exchange advice about what worked or didn’t work for them but their back pain may actually have very different underlying causes than yours and so it might not be a good idea to follow their advice.
Our suggestion would be to use these forums, if you find them helpful, to give yourself ideas and suggestions to then discuss with your healthcare professionals.
3. If you’re concerned about how much you’re worrying about your health, speak to a professional
Once you have done your research (from trusted sources) and you’ve spoken to an appropriate healthcare professional about your health concerns, symptoms or other health-related topics, if you’re still finding yourself worrying quite a lot about your health, don’t hesitate to go back to your GP or a healthcare professional who specialises in mental health and anxiety.
It can be really hard for you to evaluate whether or not your health related worries are ‘reasonable’ and ‘normal’. You can’t really compare yourself to others around you – because there’s a wide spectrum of personalities and what might feel like a ‘normal’ level of anxiety to one person might seem off the scale to someone else.
Whether or not your friends or family think your health anxiety is at a reasonable level isn’t really important. What matters is how much you feel it’s bothering you. If it’s on your mind a lot and especially if it’s affecting things like your sleep or your daily habits and behaviour, you should absolutely reach out for some expert help.
As an aside it’s also worth noting that we can also experience health anxiety about other people’s health – for example about our children or loved ones. It’s easy when we’re concerned about someone else’s health to not be aware of how we ourselves are being affected. But if that loved one is dependent on your support or care it’s really important that you’re getting support too so that you can keep looking after yourself as well as them.
Discussing your concerns about your health worries with your GP may help in itself. Often we are worried about our anxiety IN ITSELF as much as we are worried about anything else health-related. If you and your GP feel that your health anxiety is problematic there’s support available.
This could include talking therapies like counselling and CBT, alternative treatments like EFT (tapping) and self-care strategies like relaxation techniques (mindfulness, meditation). If your anxiety is really problematic your GP may suggest medication and you should discuss this carefully with your GP to see whether you feel this approach is right for you.
At Core Clinics we offer all of these services and our healthcare professionals have specific expertise in lots of areas of health. If you’re unsure who’s the best person to see to get advice on your health concerns or specifically if you’re concerned about your level of health anxiety, please get in touch.
Disclaimer: the content of this article is for general informational purposes and does not constitute or replace the need for seeking clinical advice from a suitably qualified healthcare professional.