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Coping with Health Anxiety

While countries are dealing with mass breakouts of Coronavirus, there are many people with health anxiety going into crisis with their mental health

It is natural for us all to be concerned and anxious at the moment over our health, how could we not be when we are told to isolate from others and put in place actions to prevent us from catching a possibly deadly virus.

Our brains are wired for survival and it would be remiss of our brain and body to not respond to this threat in the way that it should.

That means our fight or flight system has to be turned on for our own survival.

However as with all things we can react in varying different ways.

We will all listen to our threat system and interpret in different ways.

Some may be ready to fight some to flight and some to freeze.

Anxiety is a protective mechanism and scanning the body for an illness seems like the right thing to do to protect ourselves at this time. However, when we are preoccupied with something, we tend to notice everything about it much more and feed our threat system so it will not switch off.

Health anxiety is a real concern for people. It is not just someone over-exaggerating and being dramatic. Often there is an underlying traumatic health-related experience that manifests into a generalized daily health fear. Other times, health anxiety is branched off from another anxiety disorder like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, social phobias, or OCD.

For someone with health anxiety, any thought, sensation or fear of illness can trigger anxiety symptoms to the point that it interferes with daily life. Living with health anxiety can be exhausting for someone who constantly worries about germs, getting sick, and non-specific symptoms they fear may be terminal.

pills of asorted size and colour
Pile of pills

Currently we are all going to feel some anxiety or have felt at some point and may feel them again. However if you have health anxiety you have likely been unable to swtich off those feelings of dread and fear.

Think of the coronavirus like a giant grizzly bear running after you, of course you would be scared, your life is in danger, your brain is interpreting the coronavirus in exactly the same way as that giant grizzly bear chasing after you.

When you first heard about coronavirus it was like seeing this scary bear for the first time, you had the thought you were in danger and started your bodies natural chain of events to fire up your adrenaline so you could fight it or run away from it,

All the while you are running from the bear, (the coronavirus), you are keeping this threat system active and it will keep pumping your body with adrenaline so you can keep on running or maybe even find a way to fight back..

If you keep looking back for the bear, think the bear is round every corner you turn or will jump out at you at any minute you will be on constant high alert looking for the bear so you are ready to run or fight.

That is exactly what is happening with the coronavirus.

By constantly feeding yourself information about it, looking for who has got it , who might have it, how you might catch it you are keeping yourself on high alert, like you would looking for the bear.

Of course you need to stay alert for the appearance of the bear, but there are things you can do to reassure yourself that you have got far enough away from him he cant do you harm, or you are in a safe place where he cant get to you or you have put in place protection or camaflauge that the bear cant get to you or see you. That will at least mean you wont be in panic mode all the time waiting for the bear to attack.

You learn that if he is nowhere near you you can be calm, until the bear is next to you again and then you will need your survival instinct to kick in.

We need to do the same with our thoughts about coronavirus to help calm us down but be alert when needed.

If you have health anxiety you are probably on the look out for sympstoms, and the possibility of catching the virus or perhaps any other illness on a more or less consistent basis and so your anxiety does not have an opportunity to calm down and you will be on constant high alert for any signs or symptoms of illness or disease.

cartoon of people wearing facemasks
protect against coronavirus

You may have health anxiety if you

  • constantly worry about your health

  • frequently check your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain, probably a cough in this instance

  • are always asking people for reassurance that you're not ill

  • worry that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something

  • obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media

  • avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes

  • act as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)

Anxiety itself can cause symptoms like headaches or a racing heartbeat, and you may mistake these for signs of illness.

·The False Alarm

Car alarms are set off when a criminal breaks in but imagine how problematic it would be if the alarm went off each time a pedestrian walked by. The car alarm would be misinterpreting innocent people as dangerous criminals.

With health anxiety there is the misinterpretation of discomfort and normal bodily sensations as dangerous.

The human body is very noisy. Healthy human bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, unexpected, and unwanted, but not dangerous.

Normal sensations in the body that can produce fear and worry include changes in heart rate, blood pressure, depth of breathing, balance, and muscle tone, headaches, stomach aches, just to name a few.

These are normal and harmless bodily changes, but when a person believes they are symptoms of a terrible disease, it causes anxiety. The sensations are real, but the beliefs are false.

Your own alarm system is interpreting all those symptoms as dangerous symptoms rather than normal harmless symtpms.

Looking for symptoms makes you notice subtle sensations you might otherwise ignore. When you become preoccupied with bodily sensations, those sensations become amplified and last longer.

Its not the actual sensation or symptom that is the concern it is the meaning that you give that symptom.

So for example you could have had a cough for months now and not paid any particular attention to it, however now we know that cough is a symptom of coronavirus, every time you cough you are convinced you have coronavirus and you are very aware of when you cough and the cough has been amplified.

It is like all other anxietys, the meaning you give to things & the thoughts you have about them will lead to your emotions, your reactions and your behaviours.

Take your focus away from the disease-this may be counterintuitive for you but it is the best thing you can do, because actually if you do get the symptoms and they persist you will likely notice the difference in yourself much more easily and more quickly because they will be different sensations for you.

If you have been focusing on them everyday and feeling every change is associated to coronavirus you will not notice when something feels different to you as you consistently have these sensations.

Therefore the anxiety could be masking what is really going on for you remember the car alarm your car gets burgled because it didn’t identify the difference between harmless pedestrian and the criminal-same your body hasn’t noticed the difference between harmless symptoms and real symptoms.

So you need to get tough and realistic with your thoughts and interpretations of your bodily sensations

1. Reduce your news intake so you are not constantly filling your brain with the thought of the danger being around you consistently, this can become a compulsive habit especially now-use only credible sources you can trust – such as GOV.UK or the NHS website- facebook posts aren’t necessarily always correct. Be aware the news and media need viewing and sales figures so often sensationalise stuff-news is generally only based on negative information

2. Do not constantly google the symptoms this will only be raising your awareness of the symptoms more and you can go down a rabbit hole of misinformation which can increase your anxiety further. The same can be said of message boards and forums, people generally join these to find out what is wrong so will discuss their symptoms regularly.

3. Try to stop asking others for reassurance-by asking for reassurance you are constantly focusing on your symptoms and raising your awareness and you can become reliant on this reassurance

4. Distract yourself away from thinking about your health on a consistent basis just because you think something does not make it true.. I am not saying you shouldn’t notice changes but you will be able to more easily recognise them if you are not feeling every little sensation means you have the coronavirus.

6. Do the things you have control of wash hands, wear masks, social distance etc. you cannot control others and you may worry about being near others in public places, you may need to consider how you approach this is in a way that is most comfortable for you and be happy with your decision, not influenced by others. Do what makes you feel safe.

7. Be your own judge and jury and consider the evidence in a calm and rational way

Despite the obvious seriousness of the situation it is important to keep the threat in perspective (during the 2017-18 UK flu season there were 26,408 deaths and 1,692 in 2018-2019). The UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty estimates a mortality rate for coronavirus of one per cent. Other earlier estimates have been higher at between 2 to 3.4 per cent.

In comparison, SARS had a mortality rate of more than 10 per cent.

Health Anxiety can be a complex anxiety to understand because the symptoms feel so real and threatning. working with a counsellor may help you change your thoughts around your symptoms and change the way you feel and behave.

Laura Knight Dip Couns MBACP is an experienced and qualified counsellor and CBT therapist who runs her own private practice SeeClear Counselling in Poole, Dorset.

She is an Anxiety UK approved therapist and specialises in working with anxiety and panic attacks, helping adults move from a place of fear and worry to a place of calm and leading a happier, more fulfilled life.

Laura can offer face to face, telephone and video counselling and during the coronavirus crisis is offering a number of discounted counselling sessions.

You can contact Laura by texting or calling 07975 733029 or


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