6 Strategies for Tamping Down Your Health Fears

Worries about illness are common in older age, but excessive anxiety can be harmful.

It’s good to be in tune with your body and alert to changes that might indicate illness, but constant fretting over physical symptoms can be an illness in itself. Chronic fear about your health is a form of anxiety, which in its most severe form may be diagnosed as hypochondria. If not managed, health anxiety can interfere with daily activities, damage relationships with others, lead to unnecessary medical treatments, and cause emotional distress.

“Everyone worries about their health from time to time, often in response to real symptoms,” says Amy Farabaugh, PhD, Director of Psychotherapy Research at MGH’s Depression Clinical and Research Program. “These fears are common, especially as we age and our bodies change with the passage of time. It’s not the worrying in itself that represents a problem, but the amount of worrying.

“Stress and worrying can change cells at a fundamental level and actually make health worse. Being unable to manage health anxieties despite evidence that our symptoms don’t indicate serious illness can lead to trouble in many aspects of our lives. That’s when it may be advisable to get help: There is much that can be done to address excessive health anxiety.”

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO

If you are chronically worried about your health, these tips may help:

  • Resist the urge to scan the news for health topics, such as medical articles, specials on health issues, and coverage of little-known diseases. This only leads to increased preoccupation and anxiety.
  • Don’t search for health advice on the Internet. Many Internet health sources are unreliable or alarmist, and will only feed your anxiety.
  • Don’t doctor shop. Find a well-recommended physician, and work closely with him or her to address your symptoms. Be honest about your health fears, and ask for support in dealing with them.

Getting help

Symptoms of health anxiety include chronic preoccupation with your health that includes fears that you may have a serious illness; distress over this preoccupation; health fears that are
disproportionate and do not reflect medical evidence; and anxieties that interfere with your daily activities and enjoyment of normal life.

If you are struggling with excessive fears about your health, a thorough medical assessment by a healthcare provider and close adherence to medical advice might help alleviate some fears. If you are still anxious, a referral to a mental health professional might be in order. Try not to burden your loved ones with your anxieties, since they cannot help you with disproportionate fears, and may become frustrated and discouraged.

One highly effective approach to health anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of talk therapy that focuses on helping individuals recognize and change thinking and behavior that is causing problems in their lives. In a review of studies involving more than 1,000 participants, researchers found that CBT is significantly more effective than other forms of treatment for health anxiety. The greater the number of CBT sessions, the greater were the benefits, according to a report published in the July 24, 2014 issue of Behavior Research and Therapy.

“Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are also helpful for people with undue health anxiety,” says Dr. Farabaugh. “However, it’s important to avoid self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs, as these are not effective, and increase risk for even greater problems in the long run.”

On your own

You’re not helpless in the face of excessive health worries, Dr. Farabaugh says. Among the strategies you can try to help bring these anxieties under control are the following:

Analyze your fears. Keep a written record of your thought processes and what makes you anxious, and note how many of your health fears are not realized. Become aware of times when you needlessly fret over worst-case scenarios, and then remind yourself of these times when you begin worrying.

Cultivate acceptance. It’s natural to develop health problems as you grow older. Get treatment for what can be improved, and then try to manage and accept these physical changes with dignity and grace.

Distract yourself. Instead of dwelling on your symptoms, get busy. Take your thoughts off your health concerns by spending time with your grandkids, volunteering to help the homeless, or having fun with friends.

Try mindfulness meditation to reduce stress and increase your sense of well-being. Each day find time to sit comfortably in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply and relaxing your body. Concentrate on the present moment, non-judgmentally observing and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and sensations as they come and go, always returning to focusing on your breathing. After 20 minutes, open your eyes and relax a bit longer before resuming your normal activities.

Exercise. Physical activity helps reduce stress and anxiety, builds physical strength, and leads to feelings of improved health and well-being.

Adopt a positive attitude. Worrying about your symptoms only adds to your distress. Try to be grateful for the positive things in your life.

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