Do I worry too much about my Health?
It’s natural to be concerned when we notice health changes. There are so many stories about scary diseases, unexpected diagnosis and supper-germs in the news and on our social media feeds. With medical information available at a ‘click’, I found out my stomach-ache could be from an ulcer, appendicitis, liver problems, or a whole host of different cancers. Of course, it could also be from too many movie night nachos, GERD or the flu my child brought home from school.
Being aware of new symptoms, getting our doctor’s opinion and going for recommended tests can be an important part of taking care of our health and wellbeing. A little anxiety might be a good thing if it warns me about a change I should discuss with my doctor. But if you’re like me, worrying too much about my health can become a problem.
What is Health Anxiety?
According to the DSM 5, Health Anxiety (Somatic Symptom Disorder) is characterized by health worries that are excessive, persistent, and disrupt our ability to function in daily life. It doesn’t matter whether my symptoms are from a diagnosed medical condition or not. What’s important is how I respond to my health concerns and whether my thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are disproportionate.
The Canadian Psychological Association fact sheet on Health Anxiety estimates that up to 10% of Canadians suffer from severe health anxiety and up to 30% of the general population have “intermittent or milder fears about their health”. Reading this statistic helped me to feel a little less alone. It also made me realize how important it is to start opening up about the very real challenges living with health anxiety (previously known as hypochondria) can present us.
8 Health Anxiety Symptoms
When I started researching my health anxiety, I was surprised at how common my experience was. I was a perfect case example! Over the last 15 years, I’ve struggled with all the following behaviors and health anxiety symptoms at one time or another. Those of us with health anxiety, might find ourselves:
1. Always assuming the ‘worst case scenario’, expecting our symptoms must be a sign of a serious medical problem instead of the much more likely, less serious or natural cause.
2. Find it hard to stop worrying about our health, even if our test results are negative.
3. Always scanning our body for new symptoms and any signs we’re sick.
4. We might be so consumed by our health concerns that we have a hard time functioning or enjoying our everyday life.
5. Driven to seek constant reassurance from our family, friends, or physicians that we’re ‘okay’.
6. Or alternatively, we might avoid seeing our doctors or going for tests, too afraid of what they might find or say.
7. Avoid people or situations that might set off health worries.
8. Spend countless hours researching our symptoms online or from other resources.
You’re not alone!
You might be worried about your health in general, or focused on a specific disease or illness. For me, I tend to interpret any new sensation I discover as a sign of cancer. My greatest fear is that I will miss some small, subtle symptom that could have made the difference between a stage 1 and stage 4 terminal diagnosis.
My dreaded ‘Red Spot‘
A few years ago I noticed a small patch of red skin on my leg. I vaguely remembered running into the bottom of the bed frame a few months before – the mark was even triangular like the end of the rail. But I was terrified it must be skin cancer. Had I caught it in time?
I did what I shouldn’t have but always do – I consulted the internet. I found it. A rare form of melanoma (amelanotic) that is not pigmented. I was devastated. I took a picture of it with my phone. Then I took another picture of it the day after, …. and the day after that. Each day I scrutinized the photos for changes. I checked and I measured it several times a day (and by flashlight in the middle of the night). I spent hours reading medical journals analyzing clinical presentations and survival rates.
Even after my doctor reassured me that it looked benign, I still couldn’t let it go. I repeatedly asked my family if they thought my doctor could be missing something. They tried to comfort me but I wasn’t really reachable. I felt so scared and vulnerable. I drove to a different city and asked another doctor their opinion. Again, they said it didn’t look concerning. I sought 3 ‘2n’ opinions before going back to my family doctor and insisting she refer me to a specialist ‘just in case’. The specialist took a quick look and said it was likely the result of trauma ( a.k.a. running into the bed rail). The spot disappeared a few months later.
Are my symptoms ‘just in my head’?
Our bodies are very ‘noisy’ and they produce all sorts of weird sensations. The tricky thing is, my health anxiety makes it easy to misinterpret these normal or benign changes and start worrying there’s something more serious going on. How could I ‘not’ wonder about that lingering headache? Or the palpitations I noticed the other day? To make things even more confusing, anxiety itself can lead to all sorts of physiological symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, chest pains, a racing heart-beat, tingling and dizziness just to name a few.
In many cases the symptoms we experience can be ‘real’ – I truly did have a red spot on my leg. What’s important is how I responded to my health concern. I immediately jumped to the worst-case scenario of melanoma and ignored the more likely, benign explanation (injury). I became trapped in a cycle of obsessive checking and search for reassurance from family and physicians. My worry took over and it was all I could think about. Health anxiety can affect those with an actual medical condition too. The question to consider is whether my worry and responses are out of proportion and how much they upset my quality of life.
Choosing to Change my Health Anxiety
It was these experiences that led me to finally decide to make a change. You can read more about how health anxiety was starting to take over my life in my personal story here.
Learning about health anxiety and recognizing myself in its symptoms helped me to approach my worry a little differently. I remind myself that when I discover a change, I might worry about what it could mean, I will consult my doctor just to make sure, but I choose not to spiral out of control with that all too familiar path of “what if” questions.
Check out my post 6 Journaling Prompts for Health Anxiety and Why it Can Help for the journal practice I use to work through my health concerns. To stay updated with all my other anxiety information and wellness tips, sign up for my monthly newsletter below! You’ll also get access to my Subscriber Community Freebies. I promise not to spam and you can opt-out anytime.
If you have any concerns about your mental health or a medical condition, please ask your doctor for advice.
Wishing you well,
I’m not an expert. If you have any concerns about your health, you should always consult your doctor or other qualified health-care provider and don’t disregard or delay seeking professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment because of anything you read on this site. Wishing you well.
Anderson, R., Saulsman, L., & Nathan, P. (2011). Helping Health Anxiety. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.
“Always worried about your health? You may be dealing with health anxiety disorder.” Harvard Health Publishing, September 2018
Furer, P. (2015) “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Health Anxiety. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Psychological Association.
Furer, P., Walker, J., & Stein, M. (2007). Treating Health Anxiety and Fear of Death: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Springer.
“Illness anxiety disorder.” Mayo Clinic. Published June 6, 2018
Maunder et al. (2010) Health Anxiety: A Self Help Guide. United Kingdom: Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.