Health Anxiety effects 4 to 5 percent of people, according to Harvard Health Publishing. In today's show, learn why panic attacks are associated with health anxiety.
Has health anxiety caused problems in your life? Are you always worried that your sick or that something is wrong with your body? Today we look at how to respond to health anxiety symptoms.
Recommended Book - The Science Behind Tapping: A Proven Stress Management Technique for the Mind and Body. See Amazon
Wow – having a panic attack over health concerns. It can be a real struggle! You know that term health anxiety, used to be called hypochondriasis. I’m sure you’ve heard the word before, hypochondriac. Hypochondriasis has evolved over the past several years and its official name is Illness Anxiety Disorder.
Now, I don’t want to spend a lot of time on labels because at the end of the day, feeling anxious about a possible health problem can wreak havoc on your mood level. So what is health anxiety anyway? Well in short, it’s excessively worrying or being preoccupied with intrusive thoughts that you’re seriously ill, based on normal everyday body sensations.
So in other words, after being examined by a physician and the doctor finds no medical issues, the person continues to convince themselves that something is seriously wrong with their body.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many patients who struggle with health anxiety, and let me tell you, their panic attacks can become debilitating. When I say debilitating, I’m talking about young – healthy people- who are unable to leave their homes because they are convinced something will go wrong with their body’s.
To make matters worse, many, many of the people I’ve worked with make the problem worse by going on the good old inner webs and looking at junk websites, which by the way have no credibility, and self-diagnose themselves.
I always tell my patients who struggle with Illness Anxiety Disorder – only read credible medical website – or better yet, stay off the internet when checking out health concerns because some of the stuff that’s out there is very subjective and not put out there by credible medical professionals.
Related Article: How to Calm Anxious Thoughts Away
We’re all guilty of this to some extent right. I think it’s fair to say we have all consulted with Dr. Google when we have concerns about a health issue. But for someone who lives with health anxiety – Dr. Google can be a real problem because the person will continue to look online for hours until they find a website with the worst case scenario about their symptoms and catastrophize about it until they go down the rabbit hole and worry to death.
Now before I share a few basic tools on how to improve your distress tolerance and avoid going into a panic attack, I thought I’d very briefly talk about the causes of the possible causes of health anxiety. I did a little research over on the Mayo Clinic’s website and here’s what they say:
There isn’t an exact cause for health anxiety. But they do mention some of the following factors might contribute to the problem.
There are other risk factors, which I’ll go into in another episode, but those are the major causes listed.
In my experience, a person who is constantly worried about their health can have really intense panic attacks. I’m talking about the kind of panic where their mind is racing all over the place and they feel lightheaded to the point where they actually become dizzy.
This panic happens because when the brain perceives a threat, either real or imagined, a part of the brain called the amygdala sends out a warning signal to the rest of the body. It’s almost as if it’s saying, Look out body- there’s danger ahead. When this happens, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline gets pumped throughout the veins and before long, you’re in a full blow panic attack.
As a response, you want to improve your distress tolerance and gently bring your mind and body out of fight or flight. In other words, you want to talk back to that lizard part of the brain- the amygdala and let it know – hey I appreciate you’re looking out after me – but things are safe here and everything is okay.
In just a few moments, I’m going to give you a couple of tools that you can use in the heat of the moment to help get yourself out of a health anxiety induced panic attack.
Okay are you ready? Here is the first tool I want you to try is something called 4 squared breathing. I’ve used this method many times in the morning when I’m hyper aware of my body sensations. There was a time in my life when I used to wake up in the morning and be convinced there was something wrong with my body. It got so bad that I would actually mentally check different parts of my body to look for pain. After a while of scanning my body, sure enough – I’d find an area of discomfort and ruminate on it until I got so worked up that I couldn’t think of anything else.
So I want to simply find a place to sit – it can be on your bed or on a chair – whatever’s comfortable and simply close your eyes. In a controlled and purposeful manner, I want you to slowly breath in thru your nose for 4 seconds. Allow yourself to focus your attention on the sensation of air flowing into your nose, as you’re slowly counting to 4.
The next step is to gently hold the breath inside your lungs for 4 more seconds. After you’ve let that fresh air stay in your lungs, I want you to slowly exhale your breath for another four seconds until your lungs are completely clear. The final step is to wait four seconds and repeat the entire process again.
So it goes like this – breathe in thru your nose on a 4 second count, hold it for four seconds, then release for four seconds then wait four seconds to repeat again. I would recommend doing this simple breathing exercise for 3 to 5 mins. The reason this square breathing can be so effective is because you’re actually calming your autonomic nervous system and stimulating the vagus nerve to slow down your heart rate.
The second tool I want to share with you is called bi-lateral stimulation. This is one that I use every time I go to the doctor because years ago, I would become panicked whenever I visit the doctor because with all the prodding and taking my blood pressure and basically examining me, It was like I was convinced they would find some sort of life ending problem. In other words, my health anxiety would over ride my logical thinking and convince me, even before the actual doctor’s visit that they were going to tell me that I had some kind of life ending medical issue.
So, what I learned to do was use deep breathing with tapping movements to bring my awareness back into the present moment. Here’s how I do it – and by the way I do this right there in the waiting area of the doctors office I place my right hand on my right knee and my left hand on my left knee. Once I’m comfortable, I inhale a nice long breath thru my nose and gently exhale.
I might repeat this breathing process a couple of time, but then when I’m ready, I ask myself, on a scale between 1 and 10, 10 being the worst, what my anxiety level is. To be honest, when I’m sitting in the lobby, waiting to see that doctor, my anxiety is at around a 7 or 8 and there are times when it can be higher. So, while I’m sitting there with my eyes closed I start tapping on my knees-switching from my left knee to right knee at one second intervals. If your trying to imagine how this looks, it’s tapping in a cadence like this – left, right, left, right.
As I’m doing this, I completely own the anxiety I’m experiencing and I say to myself, I’m okay, even though, I’m anxious about seeing the doctor today and I will soon become calm and relaxed. The reason I like tapping is because I’m distracting my conscious mind by tapping my left and right knees, while at the same time, telling my unconscious mind that I acknowledge my own anxiety but that everything will be okay.
After doing this tapping for a min or maybe a little longer, I then slowly open my eyes and ask myself where my anxiety level is at. A lot of times, at least for me, that number has dropped from maybe a 8 to a 4.
Four is certainly a lot better then where I started out at 8, but if possible, I’d like to get that anxiety number down a little bit more and so what I do is just close my eyes again, and repeat the process until I’m able to see more progress. I’m simply tapping from left to right on my knees- using that positive affirmation that I accept my anxiety and then I will soon become calm and relaxed. I’ll keep doing this until I can get that number down to a 3 or a 2.
Now you might be wondering, hey Frank, won’t I look stupid sitting in a doctors office tapping on my knees? Well, I’ll just tell you straight out, I don’t really care what those people think about me. All that I care about is bringing down my level of stress and worry when I’m in that situation. If they don’t like what they see, then they can look the other way.
The whole point of doing these exercises to help you get better control over your health anxiety and get your emotions from a place of panic and worry – to a place of calmness.
Remember a thought is merely a thought-and it can only get bigger if you allow it to grow. You get to decide how your mind responds to anxiety, and you can do this by taking control over the situation putting out those flames that are feeding your worry.
Feel free to save this episode and replay it a few times, until you get used to doing some of these exercises. With practice, and the keyword here is practice, you can alleviate some of that panic and worry. The reason you want to practice is because your mind has the ability to create new neuropathways and learn how to respond to anxiety. The truth is you can bring yourself into a place of tranquility.
It’s by Dr. Peta Stapleton. I’ve linked this book in the show notes of this episode to Amazon, so that you can easily get it for yourself.
So to briefly recap. You’re going to use square breathing to calm down your racing thoughts and bring your mind into the present. You’re also going to use the tapping exercise to distract your conscious mind and let your unconscious mind know that you recognize the anxiety and that you will soon be okay.
Well, we covered a lot in today’s episode, wouldn’t you say? We talked a little bit about health anxiety, and I gave you some tools on how to reduce the panic that comes along with it. If you find this podcast useful, please leave me a review on Apple podcast. I write and produce this show all on my own and they tell me the more reviews the show has-the higher it shows up in search results.
You can contact me directly by visiting anxietytherapistpodcast.com/contact. I get a lot of emails but I promise I will get back to you as soon as I can.
It’s been a pleasure being with you today. I’m Frank Sasso, and this has been another episode of the anxiety therapist podcast.