5 Tips for Managing Health Anxiety You Can Use Right Now
Living with an anxiety disorder is a complex, often frightening and downright exhausting experience. The subset of health anxiety in particular often feels like an inescapable monster, due to the fact that, at the end of the day, we’re left with our bodies. Personally, health anxiety and hyperawareness obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) show up in my life in many ways, including but not limited to: debilitating fear of taking new antibiotics; imagining, in detail, a fatal illness growing in my body; a small pain possibly signifying a much larger (and never true) medical issue; and bouts of washing and washing and washing my hands.
It’s something I’ll always have to manage, and I won’t be “fixed.” Therapy and medication are the best choices I’ve been privileged to make in my journey with mental illness, but they are commitments, not one-time fixes. Along my adventure, I’ve gotten so much excellent advice from my therapist, psychiatrist and doctors. Health anxiety sucks big time, so here are five helpful tips for dealing with it:
1. Block WebMD, Healthline, Mayo Clinic and any other site you usually use to look up symptoms.
On most smartphones and computers, there’s a way to set up blocked websites. If there’s an access code that can be set up, have a friend or family member choose that code so that you’re truly blocked from the site. Try as hard as you can to never research side effects of medication or the meaning of symptoms. If you have questions, call your doctor. Internet fear cells in the form of health forums are often misleading or inaccurate.
2. Use self-soothing talk in times of acute stress.
I have a vivid memory of having a stomach bug and a headache when I was little. My mom sat on the couch, pet my head, and told me: “You’re OK. You’re on your cloud. It’s soft and comfortable, and you will sleep.” In times of health stress, remind yourself: “You’re OK. You’ll be OK. You’re going to get better. You are alive.” Self-soothing talk can also take the form of a wake-up call. If straight-forwardness is what you need, you can try, “What you’re imagining is not really happening, and you’re completely fine.” I once had to convince myself with some tough love that I wasn’t going into anaphylactic shock due to a non-existent allergic reaction to frozen corn. Whatever works.
3. Acknowledge that you’re scared.
This is the advice I’ve heard and read the most when it comes to almost any instance of anxiety. Telling yourself that there’s nothing to be scared of often makes the anxiety worse, because then you’re anxious that you’re anxious. It’s often better to tell yourself, “I’m very anxious and very scared right now and that’s OK.” And then you can launch into the self-soothing talk. I use this method on planes, where I’ve been known to have a panic attack or two, and it’s been a game-changer.
4. Use a buddy system if you’re scared of a new medication or symptom.
De-isolating your health anxiety — with someone else who does not experience severe health anxiety — is a good idea. Think of a friend or family member (or your therapist or doctor if they’re down for it!) who you can text or call when you’re scared of taking a prescribed medication or over-the-counter medication. The same goes for a symptom you’re feeling — just telling someone, “A spot in my stomach feels weird” could release a good amount of fear around the situation. When I was first prescribed my psychiatric medication (during an acute episode of anxiety including hyperawareness OCD in the first place… yuck), I made my significant other watch me take the medication and stay close to me for 20 minutes after I took it. I’ve been known to send a text when I’m about to take a run-of-the-mill antihistamine I’ve taken hundreds of times before. People want to help, goddess bless ‘em.
5. Reject the things you hear and read.
This is hard, of course. It seems that a lot of conversations lead to the latest virus going around, and that can be intensely triggering. Working up the courage to change the subject is tough, but it can save you from getting too involved in a conversation that is harmful to your mental health. If it’s possible, you can excuse yourself and walk away. The same goes for articles and Facebook posts which can push triggers constantly. Unfollow, hide or block whatever you need to in order to feel safe.
The body can feel like a big scary vessel of too many networks that can go wrong. But the mind is powerful too, and what they really want is to work together. Health anxiety is a lot, and trying to manage it can protect your well-deserved sanity.
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