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Health Anxiety

 

While some degree of worry about our health is normal, for some people this can spiral into an overwhelming preoccupation with the possibility of having a serious illness. If left unchecked, health anxiety can negatively impact our quality of life and well-being. However, there are a number of different psychological therapies that are effective in managing it.


What exactly is Health Anxiety?


Health anxiety is characterized by excessive worry about having or developing a serious medical condition. Individuals with health anxiety might frequently misinterpret normal bodily sensations as signs of illness. They may engage in repeated doctor visits, online symptom checking – going to ‘Dr Google’ – or other excessive reassurance-seeking behaviors, which usually backfire. They may be excessively focused on news stories that feature the threat of serious illness. This constant cycle of fear and reassurance can significantly disrupt daily life. There may be some experiential basis for this too, such as a family member having had a serious illness in the past, which can set up health anxiety for others in the family.


The Role of Psychology


Psychological therapies offer effective and evidence-based tools for managing health anxiety. The most widely used and researched approaches include:

 

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on identifying and challenging the negative thoughts and behaviours that fuel health anxiety. Therapists help clients recognize how their interpretations of bodily sensations, or preoccupations with health scare stories etc, lead to anxiety, and teach them skills to develop more balanced and realistic ways of thinking about their health. This might include techniques like thought challenging, exposure therapy to feared situations, and relaxation strategies.
     

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT takes a different approach, focusing on the importance of accepting our anxious thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to fight or control them. So it teaches that, even if you have some anxiety, life doesn’t have to go on hold for you to deal with it. ACT emphasizes mindfulness techniques and helps clients focus on their values and create a more meaningful life, even in the presence of anxiety. Even though ACT doesn’t try to stop health anxiety thoughts directly, those preoccupations might just drop away anyway as you learn better ways of tolerating them.
     

  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP): A specialized type of CBT often used for health anxiety, ERP involves gradually exposing clients to their health-related fears while helping them resist the urge to engage in compulsive checking or reassurance-seeking behaviours. This controlled exposure helps them learn that their fears are often exaggerated and that they can tolerate uncertainty.


Additional Strategies


Alongside formal psychotherapy, other strategies can be helpful in managing health anxiety:
 

  • Psychoeducation: Learning about health anxiety can help normalize the experience for individuals and give them a sense of validation. It might acknowledge some of the positive aspects of focusing on our health and taking good care of ourselves, and that this has a very rational and understandable basis, even if that is now causing us to misinterpret normal twinges or physical symptoms. Psychoeducation might point towards a more workable balance between these competing tendencies.
     

  • Self-care: Prioritizing healthy sleep habits, regular exercise, and stress management techniques can enhance overall well-being and reduce anxiety.
     

  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness practice helps individuals develop a non-judgmental awareness of their thoughts and bodily sensations, allowing them to observe their anxiety without getting caught up in it.


Seeking Help


If you find yourself consumed with worries about your health, don't hesitate to seek professional support. A qualified psychotherapist can work with you to personalize a treatment approach based on your specific needs. With the right tools and guidance, it is possible to break the cycle of health anxiety and reclaim a more fulfilling life. Practitioners at Holborn Psychotherapy offer a number of different approaches to tackling health anxiety, so do contact individual therapists to discuss what you think might work better for you.

Choice of approaches

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Existential Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization  and Reprocessing

Integrative Psychotherapy

Psychodynamic Therapy

How we can help

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