What You Need to Know About Health Anxiety

IIt’s a sniffing for signs of seasonal allergies or COVID-19? It’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself at least once — and probably many times — over the past few years.

Especially during a pandemic, it’s normal to analyze your health. But for some people, those thoughts can cross the line into more problematic territory. At least 4% of the US population living with what is called health anxiety, or care too much about health and illness — and the symptoms of the condition may have appeared or gotten worse for certain people in recent years due to virus dominance, experts say.

“Health anxiety, to a certain extent, is normal during a pandemic,” said Michelle Patriquin, director of research at the Menninger Clinic, a mental health treatment center in Texas.

2013, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed the term “hypochondriasis”, which many people find despised and inadequate. Since then, health anxiety has been officially known as “illness anxiety disorder” and is characterized by excessive worry about having or developing a serious illness, often even when tests are not done. doesn’t show anything wrong. People with this disorder often focus on mild or common physical sensations — fearing, for example, that a headache might be an early sign of a brain tumor.

Paul Salkovskis, a clinical psychologist in the UK who has studied health anxiety for decades, explains that health anxiety overlaps with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and panic disorder. be afraid. People with both health anxiety and OCD may engage in behaviors such as frequent hand washing or taking their temperature. And, similar to panic attacksHealth anxiety can manifest physically through symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, and an elevated heart rate. People with health anxiety often misinterpret these feelings as a sign that something is wrong physically, in the future if not in the moment. They may believe that heart palpitations are the first sign of developing cardiovascular disease.

Everyone worries about their health from time to time. But when that anxiety interferes with daily life or spirals into behaviors like obsessively researching symptoms online (what some researchers call “cyberchondria”), It could be a health concern.

Patriquin said the pandemic has understandably added fuel to the fire. Due to valid concerns about the capture and spread of COVID-19, isolation, political instability and increased substance useIt’s no surprise that so many people have experienced psychological pain over the past few years, she said. Ratio Anxiety and depression have increased worldwide since the pandemic began, and Research by the Menninger Clinic shows that those symptoms get worse for many people with pre-existing mental health problems.

Follow a 2021 study published in International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. The fact that the virus is highly transmissible and can spread even among people without symptoms can also cause anxiety, the paper added.

To learn more about health anxiety in the general population, another group of researchers turned to Reddit. In January 2020, even before many countries began responding to the threat of COVID-19, they saw activity on Reddit’s health anxiety forum begin to spike — and according to over time, the language used in other mental health related forums began to reflect that used in the topic of health anxiety, with many posts using words like “virus”, “respirators” and “vaccines”, they found.

However, Salkovskis noticed something interesting in his practice: some people with agoraphobia temporarily see their symptoms improve early in the pandemic, because so many people have done so. disease prevention measures. “However, it is more of a holiday than a cure,” he said.

Indeed, by spring 2021, rates of psychological distress – including health anxiety – have increased in high-income countries including the US, UK and Italy, according to a new study. published in a peer-reviewed journal and led by Marcantonio Spada, a professor of addictive behaviors and mental health at London South Bank University. Health anxiety is more common in countries, including the United States, that adopt aggressive pandemic management tactics such as lockdowns, compared to countries, including SwedenThat approach is more relaxed, says Spada.

“You ask people to avoid situations, cover their faces, watch for threats,” Spada said. “You will then be left with a collection of thought patterns and behaviors that leave you vulnerable the next time around.” Spada .’s research also show that people who score high on measures of neurological disorder are more likely to experience health anxiety during the pandemic, which is linked to the development of generalized anxiety and depression. .

Three years of fear and reflection on COVID-19, while understandable, have cause an increase in obsessive behaviors, like methodically wiping out groceries, as well as general anxiety, says Salkovskis. But not everyone with these symptoms meets the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, he says. People who are worried about their health believe they are sick and hold that belief for a long time, he said. Someone may think for years that they are in the early stages of developing cancer or heart disease, and it’s hard to definitively prove them wrong. But whether someone has COVID-19 becomes clear pretty quickly, Salkovskis said.

It can be difficult to know if your health concerns are normal in the age of COVID-19, when it is natural to be on high alert for the illness. Behaviors that can be red flags for health anxiety, like frequent hand washing or wearing face masks, have become normal and recommended over the past few years. But Patriquin says there are still signs to look for. If you feel compelled to take virus precautions in very low-risk situations — such as wearing a mask at home, only around the people you live with — or if your If your relationship and job are being affected by your habits, talking to a mental health professional can be valuable.

Salkovskis says cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the only treatment for health anxiety with clear evidence. According to Mayo Clinic, CBT can help people with health anxiety acknowledge and regulate their fears related to illness and physical sensations and develop coping strategies. Two-thirds of people with health anxiety have relief from their symptoms after being treated with CBT, and about half are in complete remission, according to the study. a research review published in 2019.

Patriquin says that lifestyle remedies can also be helpful for managing anxiety disorders. Getting enough sleep can make a significant difference in symptoms, as well as seeking social support, she says. Even online socialization can help alleviate the negative consequences of health anxiety, one Research published in 2021 found — so if you’re struggling with this condition, contacting both a mental health professional and your loved ones is a good place to start.

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