In my small office in Sydney, I have noticed a significant increase in health anxiety amongst my clients. It may be that there are more awareness campaigns on our TV screens or it could be that the increase in screening technology has made it easier to get reassurance from our doctors that our symptoms are mostly benign. Obviously increased awareness in all health matters is a good thing and early detection of illness and disease is beneficial, but we do need to make sure we don’t all become anxious wrecks.
TV advertisements often give out a repeated warning – If pain persists, see your doctor. When it comes to pain, it’s relatively easy to follow this prescription. There are other symptoms that cause rational alarm in most people – lumps, chest pain, unexplained bleeding, and visual disturbances for example. Such symptoms warrant immediate investigation. But how do we know if concern for our health is bordering on health anxiety?
Most people who have health anxiety obsess about their health. That is, they have intrusive thoughts such as: How do I know that I don’t have cancer? or What will happen to my children if I die? In other words, even without symptoms, they obsess about their health. Significantly, the intrusive thoughts interfere with their ability to enjoy life.
Secondly, health anxiety often triggers many trips to the GP. And here’s where a cycle can begin. Any good doctor is not going to ignore your concerns and will therefore send you for tests to rule out “anything nasty.” The GP’s initial reassurance and lack of panic feels good and the negative test results prompt a rush of relief. Unfortunately that relief can wear off. It may last a week or a month, but new or recurring symptoms triggers memories of those reassuring results and so it’s off to the doctor once more. When AIDS was first discovered, some anxious people fronted up every three months for that reassuring blood test. Yes, it was good to get the all clear, but the cycle of anxiety→negative test results→relief→anxiety became established.
Following the recommended guidelines of screening procedures (pap smears, mammograms, bowel checks etc) makes it easier. Seeing your doctor if pain persists, or if any dramatic symptom appears is a good idea. The hard job is to manage the persistent worry that something might be wrong and the compulsion to seek reassurance. Having insight into the problem is the first step. Mindfully surfing the waves of anxiety helps. In other words, know that anxiety builds up, plateaus and comes down again. If you are to seek reassurance, try to do it when the anxiety is on the way down. Planning regular check-ups reduces the likelihood of compulsive visits to the doctor.
Lastly, if your health anxiety persists, consider seeing a psychologist.