At almost 27, I certainly don’t claim to have most aspects of myself figured out. However, there is one part of my brain that I feel very familiar with (even if I don’t understand everything about it), and that’s the part where my health anxiety lives. Since my late teens, minor, recurring health symptoms have often sent me into a full-blown anxiety spiral. In college, even while on birth control, I would frequently worry about getting pregnant—overanalyzing how much I peed or other minor body changes. I would take dozens of tests, convinced each one was a false negative. It was the first time I realized the way I was responding to mundane changes in my body was completely irrational. And yet, I still couldn’t stop it.
While I’ve found various ways to deal with my health anxiety over the years, I still experience it about twice a year—usually over something minor like a freckle or headache. And while I can always recognize it now (and know that it’s irrational), I’m still caught in the same cycle every time: minor symptom, endless Googling, weeks of panic, eventual reassurance from a doctor, doubt that their diagnosis was correct... you get the idea. It can be exhausting, but the one thing that has made the biggest difference in dealing with it is recognizing that I’m not the only one who experiences it. Simply go on Reddit and search for “health anxiety” and you’ll find a subreddit of the same name with more than 22,000 members. You’ll also find thousands of people worrying about every health symptom you can imagine—and doctors are more familiar with it than you probably think.
What Is Health Anxiety?
“Most of the time, these individuals self diagnose themselves. When they are coming for a visit, they tell us, medical providers, about their diseases (it could be anything, hepatitis C, anthrax, etc.),” Dr. Yuabova says. “They are continually looking for signs and symptoms of a particular condition in their physiology and behavior...continually talking about their believed health issue, [and] spend a lot of time online searching for other symptoms that resemble theirs.”
Meet the Expert
Dr. Marina Yuabova FNP, DNP is an associate professor in Health and Science at CUNY and meets with many patients with health anxiety.
How to Recognize the Signs
This endless Googling and searching for signs that Dr. Yuabova mentions is always one of the first signs for me that my health anxiety has flared up again. It’s also, inconveniently, exactly what makes my health anxiety worse. If you’ve ever Googled “bad headache” before, then you can probably understand why. It only takes a few clicks to end up on a website that convinces you that you have a tumor or aneurysm. While being a little concerned when WebMD tells you that your runny nose is the worst case scenario is a fairly universal experience, it’s the complete inability to stop clicking, searching, and panicking that signals you might be experiencing health anxiety, too.
And How to Accept it as a Form of Anxiety, Not Reality
For me, acknowledging that my health anxiety was real and more common than I thought made a huge difference, even if it didn’t stop me from Googling symptoms every single time. If you are experiencing health anxiety too, then the best first step is to take advice for dealing with it from experts.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Marianna Strongin, a licensed clinical psychologist, is very familiar with treating anxiety through therapy.
“In therapy we pay close attention to the origin of the worry and then we begin to answer all those anxious thoughts (questions) with logical answers (if there was something wrong, my doctor would have found it, sometimes people experience pain and it's not indicative of a disease),” Dr. Strongin says. “In therapy we work to change the thoughts so that they are no longer triggering or worrying.”
Meet the Expert
Dr. Mark Mayfield is a licensed professional counselor (LPC), Board Certified Counselor, and Founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers. Like Dr. Strongin, Dr. Mayfield also suggests therapy, as well as mindful meditation and Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) to help identify the root causes of the anxiety.
The Bottom Line
No matter how you choose to address or treat your health anxiety, acknowledging that it’s there (and that you’re not alone) is often a hugely helpful first step. It’s also worth remembering that, as Dr. Strongin tells me, recovery is possible. “In my practice, I have seen this type of anxiety often and it's one of the most rewarding to treat,” Dr. Strongin says. “It wreaks havoc on the mind and body, but treatment is incredibly effective and offers relief quickly.