Living with health anxiety is not easy at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic. For many over the past twenty months or so, the threat of being struck down by what is so often labelled as an ‘invisible enemy’ has become overwhelming; pushing some people to more self-isolation and trepidation than is already commonplace in society. Read on to learn more on health anxiety and how to manage it as we return to normality.
What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety, often termed as hypochondria, is the all-consuming fear of getting ill or unwell. These fears are almost always irrational, with sufferers obsessed with checking for lumps and pains, over-reacting to small bodily sensations and fatally self-diagnosing oneself following frantic Google searches. This often has a majorly disruptive effect on people’s lives mentally, emotionally and physically.
The deadly cocktail of fear and anxiety can lead to symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, heart palpitations, dizziness, headaches or tingling sensations. Naturally, the appearance of such psychosomatic symptoms only exacerbates the situation and causes further stress or needless trips to the doctor.
Mentally, it can lead to feelings of severe worry that distract from everyday tasks and can cause chronic unproductivity. These dominating thoughts can also inspire a desire to be left alone, and an unwillingness to face the world.
Navigating the ‘Post-Pandemic’
Covid-19 has only multiplied these feelings for health anxiety sufferers. Even as we enter a ‘post-pandemic’ world, there are still a lot of things we do not know about the virus which, compounded by fears that the virus might return in a new form, can often make life unbearable for the hypochondriac.
Where the world was already jeopardous, it has become far more unstable and disconcerting. The events of the last year mean that there is a constant sense of impending threat, with the horror stories we hear on the news giving a sense of validity to what can otherwise be dismissed as purely irrational. Consequently, essential trips to the supermarket can be overwhelming and, even now, health anxiety sufferers will still adhere to the practices many of us have left behind.
- Avoiding large groups, which can mean missing out on landmark occasions
- When going to events, being tentative and avoiding handshakes or hugs
- Feeling claustrophobic on public transport and panicking if somebody nearby coughs
- Permanently having hand sanitizer to hand and getting through multiple bottles per week
- When groceries are delivered, disinfecting each item thoroughly with antibacterial wipes
- Testing for Covid multiple times a week and stockpiling out of fear of another outbreak
What you can do
Whilst many who have been double vaccinated feel comfortable resuming everyday life with a minimum of fuss, for health anxiety sufferers it is a different story.
If you suspect that a friend or loved one is uncomfortable in a social situation, be courteous. Anxiety sufferers often find it hard to be transparent about their emotions out of fear of feeling embarrassed or different, so try to be perceptive and don’t force people to attend crowded events if they are displaying signs of resistance.
Gentle encouragement is ok but try not to be too heavy-handed and inspire feelings of guilt. Health anxiety sufferers are still feeling their way into this brave new world and, more than most, reprogramming their minds. The events of the past two years have been totally unprecedented and have triggered different responses in people for various reasons, sometimes associated with past trauma.
As a result, we must all be respectful of people’s space and make adjustments to capacitate their desire for security. The same applies for other generalised anxiety disorders, not just relating to health.
Managing Health Anxiety
Though it does not necessarily go away, here are some strategies to help manage obsessive health-related thoughts:
- Self-care: there are many helpful mental health apps such as Headspace, with many more to be found through the NHS app library. Mindful techniques such as yoga and meditation can also help to ground you.
- Distraction: countering an over-active mind can be achieved through investing attention elsewhere. Discover a new or old passion, whether that’s a stimulating project or a television series to take your mind off things.
- Professional help: if things get too overwhelming, see a therapist. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help to establish a healthier relationship with intrusive thoughts.
- Reliable sources: avoid ‘cyberchondria’ by visiting only credible websites and try to steer clear of the news as it can often portray an exclusively bleak picture.
- Open up: talk openly to your friends and family to create a safe space. However, avoid seeking constant reassurance as it normalises feelings of worry and stress.
- Get out there (gradually): try to ease your way back into routines by rediscovering the things you enjoy, particularly that which involves exercise or physical activity.
For more tips on how to manage anxieties relating to Covid-19, visit the NHS website.