Around 20% of people in the UK suffer from health anxiety - and it's on the rise.
You’d be forgiven for feeling a little anxious about your health as the world reopens – after all, we have just faced a global pandemic and, sadly, lost millions of lives along the way.
Health anxiety tends to be underreported, but is estimated to affect as many as 20% of people in the UK. Whilst more common in adults, it can affect children as well.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, given the year that we’ve had, that the number of health-related worries, cases of hypochondria and instances of re-entry anxiety are on the rise. But what is a hypochondriac, anyway?
We’ve spoken to two medical professionals to break it down for you, explain the main symptoms of health anxiety, plus share their key tips and insights for managing post-lockdown worries, too.
How to manage post-COVID health anxiety
What is a hypochondriac?
According to Cheryl Lythgoe, matron and advanced practitioner at Benenden Health, a hypochondriac is anyone who lives with health anxiety – otherwise known as hypochondria – and misinterprets normal or minor bodily reactions as something more serious.
“Even with the reassurance of a medical professional, your anxiety may still make them to think and feel their health is at risk. Health anxiety describes anyone with undue worry about their health that may cause suffering or impairment,” she goes on.
Fatmata Kamara, specialist mental health advisor at Bupa UK, agrees, adding that whilst it’s normal to worry about your health from time to time, especially if you have any existing medical conditions, being a hypochondriac means your health concerns can become overwhelming.
“It’s a type of anxiety disorder where you suffer with an intense worry about getting ill. You may become so consumed by worry that the stress impacts your everyday life,” she explains.
Why is health anxiety on the rise right?
Aside from the small matter of the, ahem, global pandemic, there’s been a whole load of change in the last year that could have triggered anxiety, according to both experts.
Plus, we’re all being asked to have a heightened level of health awareness, with every social and media outlet asking us to be health aware. “This can intensify – and even validate – the fears of someone who already struggles with health anxiety,” shares Lythgoe.
Not to mention the fact that over the last year, most of the usual support networks have been harder to access. “Many turned to the internet as their primary source of information and support,” explains Lythgoe. “Spending excessive time online searching your health concerns is sometimes called cyberchondria and often exacerbates rather than alleviates the anxieties,” she goes on.
8 main symptoms of health anxiety
Health anxiety gives very similar symptoms to other anxiety disorders, explains Lythgoe. But Kamara emphasises that, while there are some common symptoms and signs, everyone is different, meaning they’ll experience symptoms differently.
“Even if you have no symptoms, you may still worry excessively that you’re ill, and constantly search for health information online,” she explains. “Someone experiencing health anxiety can’t easily control these feelings and may not always know what exactly they’re anxious about,” she shares.
A few clues that you may have a level of health anxiety could be:
- A racing heart.
- Being preoccupied by a health concern despite repeated reassurances that all is well.
- Frequently attending your GP, hospitals, or searching online.
- Seeking repeated medical examinations and tests to provide reassurance and explanation to perceived or actual symptoms.
- Continually worrying about your health and the worry is affecting your, personal, professional, and family life.
- Creating ‘what if’ scenarios around health. The concerns over ‘what if’ can then cause suffers to avoid certain situations, people may avoid exercising, socialising, etc. Avoidance strategies not only have general health impacts but also further negatively impacts mental wellbeing.
5 tips for managing health anxiety
1. Manage your news consumption
If what you are reading or listening to is making you feel overwhelmed or exacerbating your health anxiety, it’s time to try and reduce your consumption, advises Fatama.
“If you’re unable to pay attention, your body has been affected by what you’re reading or watching, or you feel more tense or experience physical signs of anxiety, like a racing heart or nausea, I recommend switching off and trying to focus your attention elsewhere,” she shares.
2. Challenge anxious thoughts
Perhaps you always imagine the worst possible outcome or blame yourself when things go wrong. Sound familiar?
“Whatever your pattern of thinking, you can learn to challenge and rethink these anxious thoughts,” shares Fatama.
Try this: Try to challenge your health worries and assumptions by looking at and weighing up the evidence. You may find it helpful to write your specific concerns down. “Draw a table with two columns, with your worries in one column, and then more balanced, evidence-led thoughts in the other column,” she recommends. “Even though you initially think a certain way, reflection can help show that your first impressions aren’t truly grounded, and this technique can help reduce your worries.”
3. Keep up your normal routine
We know you’ve heard it before, but don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy, regular routine, says Fatama.
“Taking steps to live in a healthier way can make a real difference to your mood, too. Make time in your week for regular, heart-raising workouts, as this can help to relieve stress and boost your energy levels. Getting enough sleep and eating a balanced diet can reduce your feelings of anxiety, too.”
Try this: If you’ve been avoiding your regular activities because of your health anxiety (for example, socialising with your friends), try to take small – but achievable – steps to gradually getting back to what you enjoy.
“Why not plan to socialise with one of your close friends outside in the park or make time for a gym workout? Being outside and spending time in nature is so important for our sense of wellbeing, especially if you suffer from anxiety,” she explains.
4. Find what works for you
Health anxiety can be all-consuming, so it’s vital to give yourself a break and set aside some time each day to relax, shares the expert. “We create routines with exercise to keep our bodies healthy, so we should all do the same for our mental health,” she shares.
Try this: This might be a challenge at first, but it’s important to find what works for you, whether it’s a 15-minute walk or regular meditation sessions (read up on meditation benefits, here). “You can use different techniques like mindfulness, breathing and yoga to do this – why not try a few out and see which one you like best?,” she asks.
5. Seek support
It’s important to remember that there is support out there for health anxiety. “It can feel a huge relief to open-up about your specific health worries and how you’re feeling. This might be a friend, a relative or your GP,” she shares.
Also note that support organisations such as Samaritans and Mind are there to help.
When to see a doctor
Do note, if you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should see your GP, as there are a range of treatments which can help, shares Kamara.
One way of working out if it is time to see a GP is by asking yourself: when you read or hear about an illness, do you experience or note similar symptoms? If you notice a sensation in your body, do you find it difficult to think of something else? And finally, do you constantly worry about that sensation?
Lythgoe explains that within general practice, they use these questions to help you identify health anxiety.
“If you feel that any or all the three questions relate to you, it’s worthwhile discussing these openly with your GP. Your GP will be able to acknowledge your concerns and support you to manage those concerns,” she explains.