May 03, 2023
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Photography by Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy United
Do you find yourself jumping to catastrophic conclusions when you experience this or that random symptom? If so, you’re probably no stranger to health anxiety.
You may be especially prone to health anxiety if you live with a chronic condition.
Here’s a hypothetical example: You’re feeling tingling and numbness in your arm, and you’re not sure why. What could it be? Your thoughts quickly spiral, and slight panic begins to mount.
You fall down a rabbit hole of Googling what the problem could be, and by the end of it, you’re a wreck, imagining the worst.
Health anxiety is common in people with serious and chronic conditions. One large research review of cancer patients and survivors found that 59% had moderate to high fear about their cancer coming back.
“Honestly, it feels like the classic ‘dark cloud’ — hanging around, unwanted, casting shadows where there shouldn’t be any,” says Lynn Prowitt, an editorial director at Healthline Media.
She received a breast cancer diagnosis at age 31 (4 months before her wedding day) and went through 6 months of chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and then a mastectomy. This year marks her 25th as a breast cancer survivor.
“My health anxiety is triggered by a pain or other physical sensation that seems like it could be cancer, however remotely,” Prowitt says. “I know a lot about metastatic breast cancer. I wrote a book about it and have a dear friend who died from it. Her first symptom was back pain. So, when I have any back pain or bone pain of any kind, my mind goes there in a nanosecond.”
Health anxiety may be severe and chronic, or it may be mild and come and go. And when you’re already extra vigilant about your health because you have a health condition, you can be especially vulnerable to anxiety.
You might experience fear, dread, or other distressing emotions; thoughts of danger; and heightened stress levels.
Like other anxiety disorders, health anxiety disorders are marked by anxiety that sticks around or gets more intense over the long term. Some of the symptoms are the same as those of generalized anxiety disorder, including frequent feelings of anxiety or dread.
But unlike those in generalized anxiety disorder, the feelings of anxiety in health anxiety disorders are specifically about your health.
If you have a chronic condition, symptoms of your condition may make you worry — and that’s normal. After all, you’re coping with real health issues that are persistent and can be unpredictable.
Some researchers believe health anxiety is a normal response to a chronic condition that presents a real threat to your health and well-being.
People with chronic conditions often report feeling concerned that their illness or symptoms will come back or get worse.
“I’ve gone several blissful years without much anxiety,” says Prowitt. “But every now and then, it’s back on the front burner when some health thing crops up that could be cancer (a lot of things could be cancer).”
She’s had two major health scares in recent years. Both resulted in negative cancer diagnoses, but only after months of tests and lots of stress.
“You do live waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says. “I have been so, so lucky to keep that shoe hovering for 25 years.”
In one 2020 analysis of 401 studies, researchers looked at health anxiety in several different chronic conditions. More than 20% of participants in these studies showed clinical (high) levels of fear. But the researchers didn’t agree on the point at which the fear became “excessive.”
Some studies mentioned in that analysis found that fear in chronic conditions is highest after diagnosis and slowly decreases over time until it stabilizes at a lower level.
Researchers also debate whether people with a chronic condition who experience health anxiety should receive a diagnosis and be considered “mentally ill” when their fear is based on a diagnosed disease and, often, realistic concerns.
If you’re experiencing health anxiety, you’re not alone, and your concerns are understandable.
Living with a chronic illness can lead to anxiety, but it also works the other way around: Chronic high levels of stress and anxiety can exacerbate symptoms of your chronic condition.
When you experience psychological stress, you may also develop increased levels of inflammatory markers in your blood. This can worsen inflammatory conditions such as psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
That’s why learning how to bring down your anxiety levels and cope with stress is key. Here are some expert recommendations to try:
If health anxiety is preventing you from doing everyday things or enjoying life, consider consulting a mental health professional.
They may recommend medication, therapy, or both.
A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety disorders, including health anxiety.
Consider asking the doctor who manages your condition to help you find a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist.
You can also find help online:
Health anxiety seems to be much more common in people with chronic conditions. That’s completely understandable since you’re already dealing with a serious diagnosed health condition that might flare up unexpectedly.
Recognizing that you’re experiencing health anxiety is an important first step.
Then, talking with a mental health professional and taking steps to reduce your stress and anxiety each day can go a long way.
If your health anxiety is affecting your ability to function or enjoy everyday life, a mental health professional may recommend medication, therapy such as CBT, or both.
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