Your question: Why am I anxious when I’m sick?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Anxiety is a normal and recurring feeling in everyone’s life. You experience anxiety when your brain detects a real or imaginary danger that it feels you must face, triggering physical and emotional symptoms that generate discomfort and discomfort,

Having anxiety when you are sick is common. This is called “health anxiety”(1). While it is normal and necessary to worry about your own health, having health anxiety implies that at the slightest appearance of symptoms of physical illness, you begin to feel anxious and worried, generating catastrophic thoughts that you could have an extremely serious or fatal disease.

People with health anxiety take their concern about health to another extreme, and begin to feel tachycardia, sweating and deep fear when they notice a symptom of physical illness, such as a slight cough, sneezing, stomach ache or headache. This generates worry that can impede daily functioning, in addition to feeling the need for constant medical supervision.

Particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic, health anxiety has increased exponentially. One situation that exacerbates people’s anxiety is the constant checking on the internet about their symptoms. The discomfort is worsened because the search results are generally much more alarmist than the person’s symptoms represent and do not offer a subjective view of the symptomatology (2).

How to know if you have health anxiety?

It is important to determine if your fear or concern about your health is as expected or, on the contrary, is exaggerated and exaggerated. Health anxiety has specific symptoms according to how the person feels, thinks and behaves in relation to their health and the belief of having a disease. Some symptoms are:

  • Imagining that you will receive a terrible diagnosis at any moment.
  • Belief that any symptom is synonymous with a serious illness.
  • When you are sick you feel you are going to die.
  • Imagining catastrophic scenarios of hospitalization and surgeries.
  • Irritable attitude when others say that your symptoms are “in your head”.
  • Recurrent unnecessary doctor visits.
  • Belief that doctors don’t understand you or don’t know what you have,

Why do you feel health anxiety?

All forms of anxiety are related to dysfunctional thoughts that trigger physical and emotional symptoms in people. In the case of health anxiety, these thoughts are related to persistent fear and worry about illness and the association of illness with death. Some things that can cause you to feel health anxiety are:

Family history of illness

There may be a history of illness of any kind in your family, and your anxiety creates a nagging worry that you could become ill with those conditions at any time.

Traumatic experience with an illness

Whether experienced by you or a loved one, a traumatic experience related to an illness may be the cause of your health anxiety. If, for example, you suffered an accident that led to hospitalization or if you became severely ill with a virus, intense fear and anxiety about getting sick again can persist even when you are healthy and cured of the previous illness.

How can you manage your health anxiety?

Managing health anxiety can be complicated because it affects both your mind and your body. Anxiety can make your body believe that it is sick when it is not, all to validate your excessive worries about your health.

Therefore, it is recommended that you seek professional help if you feel that your excessive worrying when you are sick continues and becomes more intense. Some strategies you can apply are:

Health Diary

A health diary is a record in which you can write down all the symptoms of the illnesses you feel you are experiencing, as well as the emotion that symptom generated in you. For example, if you came down with a cold, the symptom is recurrent sneezing, and the emotion may be fear. By pairing symptoms with emotions you will learn to understand your relationship with anxiety more broadly, and also to demystify ideas associated with health and illness. For example, telling yourself that there is no reason to be afraid when you have a cold or a headache, as it is a passing symptom that most likely will not go away.

Reform your belief system

It is hard work to change your thoughts. In my experience in cognitive behavioral therapy I have noticed that it is one of the things that is most difficult for people because their ideas have been ingrained since childhood. Some ideas that you should incorporate to your belief system, that is to say, that you should learn to believe and perceive as true, to help to diminish the health anxiety are:

1. Illness is part of life, you cannot avoid it. 2. Most illnesses are temporary and curable. 3. You will never be totally sure of your state of health. 4. Taking care of your health does not mean that you should stop living and enjoying life. 5. Symptoms can be psychological. 6. Doctors almost always tell the truth.

Go to the doctor on a regular basis

Having regular medical check-ups, one or two a month, can help alleviate your concern about the disease, avoiding looking up your symptoms on the Internet and thinking excessively about whether it may be something more serious than it really is.

In my experience…

In summary, we can say that feeling fear and worry during illness is common and necessary. Worrying about health leads people to prevent illness and seek timely solutions to their medical problems. However, everything in excess is bad, and if illnesses, no matter how minor, generate intense anxiety, it is a problem that must be managed. Getting sick is necessary in daily life because it keeps the immune system active. You need to trust the advice of your specialists and understand that some of your physical symptoms are actually being caused by fear and anxiety related to illness.

By getting to know your body and mind better, applying the above techniques and seeking professional help if symptoms worsen, you will be able to address anxiety symptoms directly and effectively, feeling better about yourself and your overall mental health.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. We can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads you in the right direction.

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