Health anxiety and how to overcome it

In his first session, Tom, a 27-year-old digital marketing consultant asked me ‘What is health anxiety because I think I have it.’ ‘What makes you think so?’ I replied. Tom went on to describe an obsession with a variety of physical symptoms such as a racing heart and headaches, compounded by a further obsession with self-diagnosis. ‘Sounds like you are ticking most of the boxes, I replied. ‘Yes,’ Tom sad sadly.

Health anxiety can be defined, in simple terms, as a condition in which someone worries too much about their health without any medical reasons to do so. It is sometimes considered to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In this blog, we look at health anxiety through the experiences of Tom, who overcame his health anxiety with our help.

Causes

The most understandable cause is a prior experience of a serious health condition, especially one that has a chance of reoccurring. In Tom’s case however – and the main basis to health anxiety – the causes were purely psychological. A battery of tests and multiple A&E and GP visits left Tom acknowledging in our initial appointment that ‘It is all in my head.’

Traumas and upheavals

I’ve never met anyone whose health anxiety emerged for no reason. When I asked Tom if he was able to make sense of his anxiety – why things were as they were – he could offer no explanation. ‘All I know is that it’s been an issue since I was at university.’ I asked Tom if university had been a positive experience for him. ‘No, not really,’ he said. ‘Especially my final year. I split up with my girlfriend – not for long, but long enough – and all of my friends had graduated because they started the year before.’ Tom remembers returning to his university accommodation one night and on entering his room experienced what he thought was a heart attack. ‘That’s the only explanation I could come up with,’ Tom said, ‘I just felt very alone.’

Piquing curiosity

Tom was curious about my line of questioning. ‘You think the two are linked?’ ‘Maybe,’ I replied. I asked Tom about his life generally and he talked about a difficult upbringing. ‘My dad just upped and left when I was 7, leaving my mum to raise me and my two younger brothers. She had to work two jobs as my dad left us with a load of debt. This meant I was on my own a lot.’ I could see Tom working it all out. ‘I was very angry as a young boy and teenager. Got into lots of trouble. I hated, hated being alone.’

Effective therapy: de-mystification

Tom’s two previous episodes of therapy had focused solely on managing his symptoms. He saw one therapist on the NHS and someone privately, but his presence in my room told me all I needed to know about those experiences. I told Tom that it was more than just his past. I said it was the continuity of adverse events in his life. All of these events, I told him, will have switched on his anxiety – fight, flight or freeze response – possibly on a permanent basis. The events at university, I suggested, tipped him over.

‘No one has ever explained my health anxiety in this way,’ Tom said. “Life after university has been hard. I’ve been out of work a lot and have only just got a permanent post.” I repeated my assertion that health anxiety does not spontaneously arise for no reason, adding that his previous therapy was blinkered by its understanding of anxiety. To illustrate this, I told Tom a story.

Four Blindmen and an Elephant

Four blindmen came across an elephant. Each of them touched different parts of the elephant. One blindman, grasping the trunk, shouted out ‘It’s a snake! It’s a snake!’ Another grabbed hold of a leg. Its’s a tree! It’s a tree!’ Tom got the idea and laughed.

Overcoming health anxiety

As Tom found, there are ways to overcome health anxiety:

  • Get yourself an effective therapist. This can involve some trial and error, but you will know you have found an effective therapist when they make the differences you are after.
  • Acceptance. It can be hard for people with health anxiety to accept that the causes are psychological. Like Tom, many sufferers have convinced themselves they are seriously ill, and it can be difficult to hear from a Doctor or therapist that this is not the case.
  • Resolving any form of anxiety requires making sense of why someone is experiencing it in the first place, plus giving them effective techniques and strategies, they can utilise in their day-to-day lives. ‘Focusing solely on reducing my symptoms made things worse,’ said Tom, ‘because the fear they generated was too strong to overcome.’
  • A Matter of Attention. When does the problem NOT exist? This was an especially helpful question for Tom as answering it significantly changed his perspective. He had assumed his health anxiety affected him all of the time (an example of black & white thinking), whereas answering this question revealed it was only when he was by himself or when people were leaving him. Armed with this information, he was able to a) make sense of his anxiety by reference to his past, and b) develop strategies to feel more confident in his own company.

Getting support to overcome health anxiety

“Thank you, Mark, for helping me. Those first few weeks without any anxiety were the best of my life. I am now looking forward to life. My career is progressing and I am saving for a house with my girlfriend. Perhaps the best outcome from seeing you is how it has changed my mum. She is so much happier because I am so much happier.” Tom

Although Tom struggled with health anxiety for several years, he is now living a full life without it. His story shows what is possible with the right help and support. If Tom’s story is familiar to you and has inspired you to seek support, we’d love to hear from you.