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How to manage health anxiety when it’s all around.
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 In the extreme, it’s what people used to refer to as hypochondria (now an outdated term).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.