Felicity used to constantly worry about her health. Whenever she had a cough, she was scared she had lung cancer. Whenever she had a headache, she feared the end was near. Googling her symptoms didn’t help. “And that really fed into my anxiety,” she says.
Rather than having illness after illness, 31-year-old Felicity suffered from health anxiety. And she’s far from alone, with 2013 research suggesting that about 6 per cent of Australians – well over a million people – suffer from the condition during their life.
Felicity’s health anxiety started two years ago, during a custody battle with her ex-husband. She started worrying about what would happen to her son, then aged five, if she became ill or died. As a registered nurse, Felicity felt she was being irrational. When she had a headache, for example, the “rational” part of her brain told her it was probably dehydration, but the “health anxiety” part convinced her it was cancer.
With her mind constantly stressed about her health, she had no room for friendships. Her sleep suffered, as did her appetite. “It was affecting every aspect of my life,” she says.
Felicity’s story is familiar to clinical psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger, author of The Mind Strength Method: Four Steps to Curb Anxiety, Conquer Worry and Build Resilience. While health anxiety can be debilitating, Lowinger says the condition is “very treatable” with the help of a mental health professional. She adds that there are also ways to help reduce anxiety by yourself.
Start by building awareness of your “worry thoughts” and how they’re affecting your life. Lowinger says that worry makes you really focus on your body’s experiences, which exacerbates your perception of them. Called hypervigilance, this is the brain’s natural tendency to focus on threats.
Hypervigilance then fuels anxiety symptoms, such as muscle tension and a racing heart. Your brain takes these negative experiences as confirmation that there is actually something wrong with you. In an effort to de-escalate these concerns, you may engage in “safety behaviours” such as seeking reassurance from others or googling your symptoms.
But such behaviours actually fan the anxiety. Because you can’t derive certainty from them, you repeat them and risk falling further down the vortex of worry. Instead, Lowinger recommends problem solving and action planning. Reframing your thoughts as an “illness story” can help. “When you accept the thoughts as a ‘story’,” she says, “you become less hypervigilant and break the cycle.”
Of course, some symptoms will require medical attention. Lowinger recommends following medical advice, but says having more awareness and understanding about health anxiety “will help you feel more in control”.
That’s what Felicity found. Earlier this year, she realised she could no longer live being “crippled by fear” and went to see a psychologist.
Through therapy, she learnt her health anxiety stemmed from a feeling of lack of control from her custody battle. A psychologist also helped shift her thinking from constant worries about health to a focus on improving wellbeing. She started exercising, eating better and looking after her mental health, all of which have helped her feel better than she has in years. Therapy didn’t cure Felicity’s anxiety overnight but it did give her a sense of relief.