Clinical Editors: Christine Celio, Ph.D., Andrew Bertagnolli, Ph.D., and Juliana Tseng, Psy.D.
When it comes to your health, it’s natural to occasionally experience some level of concern. Whether you’ve noticed a new mole or want to make sure your blood sugar falls within a healthy range, paying attention to your body and noting any unusual changes can help you get ahead of any potentially serious health issues. While the occasional worry may be helpful in keeping you on top of your health, however, excessive worry can be counterproductive.
Individuals who experience health anxiety have an unrealistic fear of having or developing a serious or life-threatening illness, despite having few or no symptoms. Those with health anxiety might worry excessively about the state of their current or future health, spiral down internet rabbit holes Googling their symptoms, or assume the worst about mild symptoms. If you have health anxiety, you might even continue to worry even after medical tests reveal nothing abnormal.
In other words, people with health anxiety over-focus on what they feel, and consider worst-case scenarios as serious possibilities.
“It is reasonable and healthy to become concerned or seek medical attention when your body sends you signals indicating that you may be ill, such as pain, discomfort, functional change or impairment,” says One Medical licensed clinical psychologist, Juliana Tseng Psy.D. “But individuals with health anxiety might worry about the state of their health even if they aren’t experiencing any symptoms or despite having received confirmation of good health from a medical professional,”
Along with causing emotional distress, Tseng says health anxiety can interfere with people’s ability to focus on other important areas of their lives, such as hobbies or social activities (both of which can help boost mental and physical health). This stress and anxiety can even cause physical symptoms and further worsen your overall well-being.
If you’re struggling with persistent worries about your health, it’s worth taking steps to find a better balance. Here are a few tips for managing your health anxiety.
1. Remember that your body sends you signals all the time
People with health anxiety often misinterpret normal physical sensations as signs of illness or disease. For example, if your muscles feel sore after a workout, you might worry you’re coming down with the flu or COVID-19. If you have a tension headache after a long day of work, you might think something’s wrong with your brain.
No matter what’s concerning you, remember it’s totally normal — even healthy — to experience different physical sensations. “Remind yourself that your body is sending you signals all the time, and these signals sometimes just remind us that we’re alive,” says Tseng. “If you run up 10 flights of stairs and as a result, experience rapid breathing and a quickened heart rate, these are just signs that your body is functioning the way it should and not an indication there is something wrong.”
2. Get comfortable with new sensations
Exposing yourself to physical sensations that make you nervous can, over time, make them feel less overwhelming and scary. “Practice healthy behaviors that allow yourself to experience various bodily sensations in order to increase familiarity and comfort with new sensations,” says Tseng. “For instance, you may consider trying yoga to stretch or strengthen muscles you do not normally engage, or going for a jog in cool weather."
3. Try not to self-diagnose
If you’re nervous about a medical condition, you may think seeking out more information (for example, searching online) will help alleviate that anxiety. Think back to other times you’ve done that. Chances are, seeking to fill those holes yourself only made the anxiety worse. While the internet can be a helpful tool when used correctly, it’s easy to spiral down a rabbit hole of worst- case scenarios. If you look hard enough, you'll end up finding something to confirm any anxious thoughts you’re having. It’s important to remember though that the internet doesn’t know anything about your personal health or family history or lifestyle. Your healthcare provider, however, does. If you’re concerned about a particular change in your body or symptom, reach out to your primary care provider, rather than assuming the worst or self-diagnosing. If you’d like to do additional research, however, just be sure to seek information from reliable sources such as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, or the One Medical blog.
4. Recognize and challenge unhelpful thoughts
Many types of anxiety involve catastrophizing thoughts, or assuming the worst will happen, even without evidence. Tseng compares this to a block of Swiss cheese. “The cheese itself is the information that you have (for example, “My head hurts”) and the holes are the information you do not have (the cause of the headache),” she says. “People who experience anxiety have a tendency of creating scenarios in their minds to fill in those holes of information, and these tend to be worst-case scenarios.” If you struggle with healthy anxiety, it’s easy to jump from a thought like ‘I think I might have a heart condition’ to ‘I have a heart condition and I’m dying.” It’s important to remember, however, that not everything you think is true or real. Just because you have a thought, does not mean it’s factual or rooted in reality. Questioning and challenging these thoughts can help prevent your anxiety from interfering with your daily life.“Anxiety is like a bully,” says Tseng. “It tells people how they should be feeling. Just like with any bully, it’s important to practice not giving into those demands.Try to recognize the difference between a factual thought, and one that is created by anxiety, then ask yourself, what is a different way to think about this?”
5. Seek help
Everybody experiences worry from time to time. But if your anxiety isn’t going away or is beginning to impair your daily activities and routines, it may be time to seek the support of a professional. If you’re concerned about your mental health, start by reaching out to your primary care provider. They can help you by ruling out any physical issues, as well as develop a care plan tailored to your unique needs. This might include lifestyle changes, medication, or referral to a behavioral health specialist.
It can be hard to ask for help, especially if you feel like health anxiety is keeping you safe. But with the right support, you can gain tools that help you de-stress and participate in activities you enjoy — both of which can go a long way in protecting your long-term health.
Have more questions about health anxiety? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health needs. Book an appointment with a provider through our app today or get 24/7 virtual care on demand.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.