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Managing Health Anxiety During The Coronavirus Outbreak

With the latest epidemic of coronavirus on the news there will be lots of people feeling consumed with worrying thoughts about their health. News such as this is readily available as soon as we pick up our phones or turn on the television. If we let it, we can become bombarded with worrying and negative headlines every day. For those experiencing health anxiety, without the added news of coronavirus, a typical day can be very draining. So, not surprisingly, news such as the coronavirus will be debilitating for lots of people and this article will help you regain control of your health anxiety and help you get your life back.


Health anxiety, also known as hypochondria, is like anxiety but specifically involves worrying about your health and becoming ill. These worries become excessive and very consuming and can start to negatively affect day to day life. A common symptom of health anxiety is frequently checking your body for signs of illness, such as lumps and bumps, tingling or pain. Those who experience health anxiety can be super sensitive to feelings and sensations happening with the body which can trigger a worry cycle. For example, a sharp pain in the head, which may last only a few seconds, can lead to irrational and, quite often, catastrophising type thoughts such as telling ourselves that the pain is a sign of something more serious like a tumour.


Just like anxiety, the irrational thoughts (i.e. catastrophising or ‘what if’ type thoughts) trigger our sympathetic nervous system which then activates our fight or flight response. Because our brains cannot distinguish between a dangerous physical threat and a perceived threat such as an irrational thought, it still prepares the body by sending stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to the nervous system. This is how irrational thoughts play their part in triggering physiological stress responses. It is normal for people with anxiety to experience physiological and physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, headaches or chest pain. These types of symptoms can often trick you into thinking that you are ill with something seriously wrong, however it is usually not the case and symptoms will dissipate after a short time.


Once health anxiety sufferers have reached the point of experiencing such physical symptoms then it becomes very difficult to think rationally and plan things. Focus and concentration will also be impaired. Trying to gain a rational perspective on things happening in the world like the news of the coronavirus can be near impossible. This physiological anxiety response can be activated in just a split second after reading a news headline or seeing a notification ping up on your phone.


So, how do we regain control and manage health anxiety in this day and age?


-  GET TO KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS Be aware of types of thoughts that you are having. Notice any negative, irrational thoughts that you may be having. Are you predicting the future in a negative way? Do you find yourself using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’? For example, ‘I always get ill’. These types of thoughts feed anxiety. Keep a thoughts journal and look back at them when you’re in more of a relaxed state. You can then begin to challenge the thoughts and look for evidence around them, for example, where is the evidence that you are going to catch coronavirus. What advice would you give a friend if they told you they were thinking this. One by one, start to reframe them as healthier thoughts with evidence. For example, ‘I have a good immune system and there are things that I can do to keep it strong’. The more you get to know the types of thoughts you have, the more power and control you will have to reduce the anxiety.


-  TAKE TIME TO READ THE FACTS Look beyond a headline that may seem scary at first and examine the numbers and facts. At the time of posting this blog, 13 people in the UK have tested positive for coronavirus (info taken from the GOV.UK site). There are over 67 million people living in the UK – does that help put it into perspective? When we hear that it is spreading fast, it is easy for our mind to imagine it spreading throughout the whole of the UK overnight. Again, that would be thinking irrationally and that is not what is happening in the UK. The symptoms of coronavirus include a fever, a cough and difficulty breathing and can cause more severe symptoms in people with weakened immune systems, older people, and those with long-term conditions like diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease. It is easy to mistake anxiety for signs of illness, especially as anxiety symptoms can include feeling hot and sweaty with shallow and rapid breathing.


-  POSITIVE DISTRACTING BEHAVIOURS A healthy distraction can help take you out of your own thoughts and worry cycles. Exercise is a brilliant way to do this as a workout will release feel-good chemicals in the brain and give a sense of accomplishment. So, have a think about what you enjoy doing. It may be a project that you are currently working on, or a hobby. Thinking about the five ways to wellbeing can help here too: give, take notice, be active, learn and connect


.-  IDENTIFY ANY SAFETY BEHAVIOURS Safety behaviours, whilst providing you with temporary relief, may be prolonging the anxiety, for example, constantly booking a doctor’s appointment for reassurance, avoiding going to a particular place for fear of getting an infection and avoiding anything to do with serious illness (such as watching medical TV programmes). Whilst it may seem like these behaviours are helping, it can be making the health anxiety stick around for longer and it also allows the fear of what you are avoiding, to grow in your head.


-  TALK TO SOMEBODY Whether it’s a friend, a family member or a health professional, talking can help. Vocalising your worries to somebody who you trust can help reduce the anxiety, it can give you a different and healthier perspective on something. Talking can provide feelings of relief and can help you understand where your negative thoughts have come from meaning you will then be able to make positive changes by thinking or acting differently.


-  LIMIT ACCESS TO THE NEGATIVE SOURCE If you can identify what it is that is making you feel anxious, for example, the news notifications on your phone, then make steps to turn them off. Reduce your time watching the news will help too as will having a social media declutter and unfollowing anything or anyone that you feel is having a negative effect on you. This doesn’t have to be a permanent change; it is just one to help you get through a difficult time.


-  DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATHING (BELLY BREATHING) Anxiety is synonymous with shallow breathing which disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide needed to feel relaxed. However, learning diaphragmatic breathing can help you feel relaxed. The basics involve taking a deep breath in and feeling the tummy rise followed by a long exhale feeling the tummy move back in. There should be little or no movement in the upper chest.


Of course, it goes without saying to also practice good hygiene, you can reduce your risk of infection by washing your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands and avoid close contact with people who are sick. Knowing that you have done this will bring you peace of mind.


It is important to remember that thoughts and feelings are fluid and are not fixed. It may seem, at times, like you will feel anxious forever, but you can feel relaxed and happy again. Anxiety can also reduce to a point where you barely notice it anymore and in some cases it can disappear altogether.


Author: Sara Dewhurst – integrative therapist and anxiety survivor from Ribble Valley, Lancashire