Are you worried sick about getting sick? If so, you’re not the only one. A huge number of people are concerned about infection amidst the recent rapid worldwide spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). It makes sense given the disease’s symptoms and potentially lethal effects.
But health anxiety isn’t something new with the outbreak of coronavirus.
Health anxiety used to be called hypochrondria or hypochrondriasis. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 changed the diagnosis of hypochrondriasis to Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder to more accurately reflect the different ways that symptoms present in the general population.
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is irrational and intrusive thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors concerning having or getting a serious illness. People with health anxiety often misinterpret their body’s normal signals as indicative that something is wrong. They also spend a lot of time and energy in efforts to address (or in some cases deny) their health worries. Going to the doctor, getting scans and lab tests, or a clean bill of health don’t ease their worries about their health. All together, health anxiety makes daily functioning very difficult.
You may be thinking that sounds like OCD.
And you’d be kind of right. Some people who experience OCD have concerns about contamination. However, OCD-related concerns about contamination aren’t necessarily exclusively related to having a medical condition. For example, someone may have an irrational concern about coming into contact with another person’s hair or a surface touched by someone else’s hair. They only feel relief once they’ve performed a behavior (i.e. a compulsion) that reduces their anxiety.
There’s also a difference between health anxiety and health concern.
The point of distinction between health anxiety and health concern is that a person’s response to a health concern is proportionate. People with health concerns have an understanding of how their body usually feels and reacts. Therefore, they notice changes or unusual patterns that may occur and seek medical support. Those with health concerns know and follow through with the medical and safety precautions needed to stay healthy given their personal health status.
Causes of Health Anxiety
There’s no clear cause of health anxiety. For some, it starts from experiencing or seeing a loved one experience a major medical condition. Or maybe they went through a big health scare or misdiagnosis that turned out not to be serious. Others may have a poor understanding of the body, symptoms, and illness, and misunderstand their body’s signals.
Treatment for Health Anxiety
Years of scientific research have shown that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for severe anxiety conditions, like OCD and health anxiety. CBT entails identifying troublesome health-related worries and beliefs, understanding how these are affecting you, and finding new ways to see/interpret your body’s signals/sensations. This form of therapy may also expose you to situations or things that trigger your health anxiety so that you face your concerns head-on and make them less scary. Medication is another treatment that can help address health anxiety.
Managing Health Anxiety During Outbreak of Coronavirus
If your health anxiety is in overdrive since the increased reports of coronavirus, here are steps you can take to reduce your health anxiety about the coronavirus, zika, ebola, or any other pandemic.
- Follow prescribed recommendations from CDC, WHO, etc. for cleaning to minimize spread of illness.
- Assess your level of risk. If you and your family are reasonably healthy, then take sensible steps to maintain your health (e.g. hand washing, wiping down high contact surfaces, limiting physical contact with others). If you (or a loved one you have frequent contact with) have medical conditions that make you vulnerable to catching an illness, consult your doctors for additional recommendations that will minimize the risk of becoming sick.
- Limit daily viewing/consumption of news media. 20 minutes or less daily. Seriously, Even a zen master would feel rattled given the sensationalist nature of media coverage and the 24/7 news cycle nowadays.
- Don’t watch epidemic movies like Outbreak, Contagion, World War Z, or Patient Zero. It should go without saying, but with over 4,000 daily online searches and climbing… well, apparently it needs to be said.
- Try not to talk about it too much. Some people just can’t help themselves and harp on all the latest information from the news. It may help them manage their anxiety. But if it triggers your anxiety, find a cordial way to change the subject or, if needed, remove yourself from the conversation.
- Try to stick to your daily routines as much as possible. This helps keep you grounded and maintain a sense of normalcy.
- If you’re worried about going to certain public places, call ahead and ask what they’re doing to maintain hygiene/cleanliness.
- Ask if you can switch in-person meetings to online ones. We’ve been doing this successfully with clients and it’s helped alleviate their anxiety.
- Carry hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes in your bag.
- Get creative to limit contact with high contact surfaces in public places. Open door handles with a paper towel or your sleeve or push them open with your forearm. Use your knuckles to switch lights on/off.
- Practice relaxation/stress reduction techniques when you’re feeling really wound up. Some good ones are diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery meditations, or EFT (tapping).
Here are some additional ideas to help you stay sane should you have to be quarantined.
- Make sure that you are following medical recommendations. This will give you peace of mind that you’re doing everything within your power to avoid spreading the disease and maintaining/recovering your health.
- Hydrate and eat healthy nutritious foods. It will help your body stay healthy or recover from illness faster. Plus, there are many foods, herbs, and spices that have loads of antibacterial and antiviral benefits.
- Stay in touch with loved ones using your devices. Loneliness and cabin fever can result from social isolation, especially for extroverts. Chatting with people regularly can ease these feelings. (Just make sure to disinfect devices frequently.)
- Pick up a hobby. Try knitting, crocheting, drawing/sketching, or painting. Or maybe try writing a short story or poem. Reading a book you can’t put down also helps pass the time.
- Learn something new. Take an online class on Great Course, Udemy, or Master Class. Learn a new language. It’ll keep your mind occupied and from going to worst-case scenarios.
- Practice the aforementioned relaxation techniques.
Hopefully, this post has given you some insights and ideas for alleviating any health anxiety you may be experiencing. At Envision Wellness, we’re getting creative and doing our best to help our clients and callers navigate their concerns. That means offering online therapy sessions, working from home, making DIY hand sanitizer, and cleaning our office space several times per day, particularly high contact surfaces. We hope this encourages you to seek support should you need it as this latest health crisis unfolds. We’re here if you need us by calling at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult.