Understanding and managing health anxiety during a pandemic
By Sakuni Weerasinghe
You notice your throat has been scratchy for the past two days. You are tired most of the time. When you go to bed at the end of the day, you notice the aches and pain in various parts of your body. Your temperature also seems to be somewhat higher. Can this be it? Does this mean you have been infected with Covid-19?
It is only human to be concerned and worried about your health. Given the state of the world right now, in being surrounded by a pandemic, it is only normal to pay attention to the signs and signals your body emits. When you are constantly being bombarded with information about the virus and its symptoms, it is understandable why you may attribute these bodily signs to the possibility of being infected. However, for those already diagnosed with health anxiety and for those who have begun to experience extreme distress over their health after the first outbreak, the current wave of the pandemic may contribute to an exacerbation of their worries.
Health anxiety, which has been previously referred to in psychological texts as hypochondriasis, is a persistent, intrusive, and irrational worry about having an illness. This means you’ll often spend your time worrying about being ill or acquiring an illness. When someone experiences health anxiety, they may be vigilant about any potential signs of illness (for example, pain, tingling, palpitations, lumps, etc.) even if they happen to be minor or regular bodily sensations, spend much time researching what these signs could mean, and often misinterpret them and attribute them to grave medical conditions (note that based on the presentation of symptoms, the diagnosis of health anxiety may vary as illness anxiety or as somatic symptom disorder).
How do you demarcate between concern for your health and health anxiety? Well, if your body is giving you signs of potential illness, it is understandable to develop a concern. However, for those with health anxiety, the worry experienced is excessive and disproportionate to the actual chances of acquiring the illness. It will also interfere with the person’s day-to-day functioning at school or work, their personal life, and their social relationships. Moreover, if we are concerned about bodily signs, it is normal to visit a doctor and obtain advice. However, when it comes to health anxiety, a person may still experience distress after obtaining reassurance from a medical professional that they do not have an illness. Hence, they may repeatedly seek reassurance from various medical professionals and alternative practitioners. Some, on the other hand, would avoid hospital visits and doctors’ appointments at all costs in order to avoid a diagnosis.
So, if you’re monitoring yourself for signs related to Covid-19, does it mean you have health anxiety? Most likely not. Given the context, it is only reasonable to be attributing certain bodily signs to the symptoms of the virus. However, since there is no vaccination available to the public as of yet, and we cannot be certain of how long it will take to eradicate the virus, there is a fair chance of developing health anxiety in the future when some of us will still be operating under the fear of contracting the infection. Hence it is necessary that we remain aware of what health anxiety is and refer to a mental health professional if we find our worries overwhelming us. Self-diagnosis, by the way, is out of the question.
What is crucial when it comes to health anxiety, is knowing how to respond to and cope with your signs in an effective manner. While this is often extensively explored in psychotherapy, let’s look at some additional tips to manage health anxiety, especially during this pandemic.
- Avoid spending excessive amounts of time tuning into media outlets: This includes all media – newspapers, radio, television, and social media. When we are constantly hearing news of the pandemic and related health concerns, it can increase worry. It’s understandably a fine line between staying informed and overconsumption by being bombarded with news, but it is necessary to take whatever steps necessary to prioritise our mental health.
- Journal: Make a note of how often you screen for bodily signs, how often you turn to Google to research various symptoms and medical conditions that you think you have, or how many people you seek reassurance from when it comes to your physical health. With an experienced therapist, you may engage in a journalling activity to explore how you feel, what it would mean if you were to have a medical condition, and explore the “what-ifs”. Explore the reasons that have led you to develop worries over your health.
- Engage in relaxation exercises: Try to engage in guided imagery or belly breathing as much as possible. When we are placed in a state of constant worry, the fight-or-flight mechanism remains active, which affects the regulation of our bodily functions such as blood pressure for example, which then collectively impacts our immunity. Therefore, explore your preferred and healthy methods of relaxation and engage in them regularly.
- Challenge your thoughts: Interrupt any thoughts you have with regards to checking your body repeatedly or ruminating on the information you read online about a condition. You can tell yourself to stop when you notice that they are starting to form into a chain of thoughts. You can also take a piece of paper, write down your worry about a bodily sensation towards the left margin, and explore alternative reasons for that sensation on the right. For example, if your worry is about a headache, you may explore the possibility of having it due to being stressed, or tired, or being out in the sun for too long, etc.
- Keep your mind and body occupied: If you’re spending time tending to your garden, enjoying time in the kitchen, doing some reading, or exploring a new hobby, there is a lot less time available for the health anxiety-related thoughts to occupy your mind. Moreover, this will also reduce the number of times you would scroll social media for news related to the pandemic. Taking a mindful walk, even if it is across the periphery of your garden, will be helpful in keeping you engaged with things besides health concerns.
It is okay to talk to a mental health professional about your experience. With therapy, you will receive validation for what you’re going through, especially the emotional toll associated with health anxiety, and gather important information and tools on effectively managing health anxiety.
PHOTOS Healthline, Metro, The Positivity Pages, Psychology Tools, The Lily