Best Health

JUST BE­TWEEN US

How to man­age health anx­i­ety when it’s all around.

- by KAREN ROBOCK

How to get a grip on your health anx­i­ety.

I’M A CON­SIS­TENT but ca­sual wor­rier by na­ture. My health isn’t in my usual ro­ta­tion of anx­ious thoughts, though. It’s more likely to be wor­ries about money, par­ent­ing and my ca­reer that cy­cle through my brain at 3 a.m. And in gen­eral, wor­ries don’t dom­i­nate my thoughts on a day-to-day ba­sis or rule my life (although the morn­ing af­ter a rest­less night can feel pretty soul-de­stroy­ing). But since COVID-19, I’ve taken a few anx­ious dou­ble takes. When I got a stuffy nose, I wor­ried it couldn’t be ex­plained by sea­sonal al­ler­gies.

When my old­est daugh­ter came down with a fever, I wor­ried it was some­thing more. And when my hus­band, who is a front-line worker, had a stom­ach bug and was re­quired to go to the hos­pi­tal for test­ing — well, I veered close to panic. These ab­stract fears have started to fol­low me around like a shadow.

So is the fact that I, a quiet 41-year-old with­out an anx­i­ety prob­lem, find my­self with a con­stant, low-grade fear of an im­pend­ing health scare also cause for worry? At this point, I don’t know too many peo­ple who aren’t feel­ing a twinge of health-re­lated anx­i­ety on a daily ba­sis. How are peo­ple with di­ag­nosed anx­i­ety dis­or­ders — es­pe­cially those re­lat­ing to health — ex­pected to cope?

What is health anx­i­ety?

Since the start of COVID-19, you’ve likely heard friends talk and seen lots of on­line chat­ter — both se­ri­ous Face­book posts and flip­pant In­sta­gram memes — about es­ca­lat­ing anx­i­ety around health. But feel­ing a pan­demicin­duced health panic isn’t the same as hav­ing a di­ag­nosed health anx­i­ety dis­or­der.

“Es­sen­tially, health anx­i­ety is when a per­son has an ir­ra­tional and ob­ses­sive worry about hav­ing a se­ri­ous medical con­di­tion or ill­ness,” says Dr. Kris­ten Kaploun, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist in Burling­ton, Ont. In the ex­treme, it’s what peo­ple used to re­fer to as hypochon­dria (now an out­dated term).

“A hall­mark fea­ture of health anx­i­ety is that it re­ally goes above and be­yond what would be con­sid­ered a nor­mal concern for your health,” says Kaploun. For a per­son with high health anx­i­ety, a headache can be in­ter­preted as ev­i­dence of a brain tu­mour, for ex­am­ple. And in the con­text of a coro­n­avirus, a per­son with high health anx­i­ety is likely to mis­in­ter­pret ba­sic bod­ily sen­sa­tions and changes, like mild short­ness of breath, a dry throat or mus­cle aches, as proof of in­fec­tion.

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