By Nance Ebert, Contributing Writer
REGION – As we age, we might experience more aches and pains, and it is not all that uncommon to worry that there may be something seriously wrong. Even with reassurance from your medical professional and insistent test results that conclude you are fine; you may suffer from health anxiety.
Health anxiety is a real thing and is a condition that causes healthy people to worry that they are ill, even when their symptoms are minor or non-existent. This fear can actually interfere with daily living. It’s a disorder that has also been referred to as hypochondria.
A person’s anxiety can be increased at times by their real symptoms. Headaches caused by stress, for example can lead a person with health anxiety to fear the worst like maybe they have a brain tumor. The person is easily alarmed about their health.
“Aging gracefully can be challenging, which can increase as we see our minds and bodies age,” said Debbie Mendleson, a licensed social worker in Salem. “The primary strategy to combat anxiety is ‘self-care.’ That may sound too simplistic but given the demands of our society, many run themselves ragged while pushing through their days.”
“When trying to deal with anxiety, getting adequate sleep is of the utmost importance,” she emphasized. “Another strategy is filling in daily periods to pause and take a break, allowing the brain to relax. Eating a clean diet and getting exercise can also be helpful.”
Recognizing the signs
There are signs of health anxiety, what to be mindful of and when to seek the help of a professional. Some of these signs might include that you are constantly online researching health information (such as symptoms and illnesses), you worry that you might be suffering from a disease or illness after reading an article about it, you have no symptoms but still fear that you are sick, and your doctor has reassured you that you are not suffering from any illness but you are still quite anxious and not convinced.
“I worried, constantly, that I was dying from some ailment. It wasn’t until this fear became consuming that I addressed it with my primary care physician. He directed me to a therapist, which was life-changing,” said Laura W. of Worcester.
At this point, your fears about your health are consuming and interfering with your daily life. Once you can recognize this, it is time to take control and seek out professional help. Coping with health anxiety takes time but can be managed and is treatable. Some suggest relaxation exercises like meditation, spending time outdoors in nature, exercise, listening to soft music and even something as simple as lighting a candle.
“Another strategy is using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy,” said Mendleson. “This allows the client to better understand their thinking process and then helps in extinguishing negative thought patterns. In addition to CBT, a client can explore their fears with a therapist whose goal is to normalize the anxiety, thereby taking the sting out of a client’s stressors.”
“People with health anxiety, for the most part tend to fear severe illness, such as HIV, cancer, or dementia. They worry far less about strep throat, twisting their ankle or getting a cold,” said Dr. Timothy Scarella, instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, in an article published by Harvard Health Publishing. “This fear that they have might lead them to waste hours in the doctor’s office, seek out unnecessary testing and spend days consumed by worry,” said Scarella. “It’s not only their own health that people with health anxiety may focus on. Some people also worry excessively about their children’s health.”
Avoiding medical treatment is another concern
It is also important to note that someone suffering from health anxiety might be so fearful about what could be discovered that they avoid going to the doctor altogether. This can happen even if they are not feeling well or simply need a routine physical. The danger there is that a real health issue might be ignored and become more serious if treatment is delayed.
To a person not inflicted with health anxiety, this might seem extreme; however, for the person who has this disorder, their worry is not controllable and it can be excessive. Not only does it affect their lives, but it affects their family and friends as well.