Health Anxiety: How to Break the Cycle
Are you struggling with worries about whether or not you may have a serious illness? If so, this three-part video series on health anxiety may help you. Hi, I'm Paige Pradko, a psychotherapist that specializes in anxiety disorders and OCD. Welcome to Therapy for a Better Life.
This is Part 2: Breaking the Health Anxiety Cycle. If you missed Part 1, on the Four Different Presentations or Types of Health Anxiety, I'll leave you a link in the description below. And if you're curious about whether or not you may have health anxiety, I will also leave you a link for a free self-assessment for health anxiety in the description. Even though there may be different presentations of health anxiety, one thing they all have in common is that the anxiety or OCD is maintained or fed by your specific thoughts and behaviors in the Health Anxiety Cycle. Let's take a closer look at the Health Anxiety Cycle.
On top of the Cycle, at Number 1, there's a trigger. You may notice a body sensation like a sore throat or palpitation. You may feel a lump, see a mole, have a headache, feel nauseous, any number of things.
In Step 2, you perceive or you misinterpret those sensations and symptoms as unpleasant, alarming, and even dangerous.
In Step 3, you begin to increase your worry over your health and the uncertainty of what those symptoms and sensations might mean.
And in Step 4, as that worry continues, your anxiety now just goes through the roof and you become even more hyper-vigilant and focused on the sensations and symptoms, and they just seem to intensify.
And in Step 5, in an attempt to calm your anxiety and reassure yourself, you begin to do all kinds of different behaviors. Maybe you check your body symptoms like your pulse or blood pressure, or you check on lumps or Google information or call doctors or anyone that might reassure you. And you may avoid certain activities like exercise or going places. You might avoid being alone or being too far from a hospital. Anything to reduce your anxiety.
But although the anxiety may just go down for a moment, maybe you even felt a little bit of relief or reassurance, but it's a trap. It only lasts for a short while because the next sensation or worry ... Boom! That cycle starts all over again.
So where in the Health Anxiety Cycle do you think you have an opportunity to break it? Let's take another look. In Step 1 where you have the trigger. Well, you can't do anything about the cycle there. You can't break the ... stop the trigger. You're always going to have triggers. You're human. You're always going to have sensations and body symptoms. But you can just recognize that you were triggered.
Now in Step 2, the initial panic whoosh that you feel when you have a bodily sensation or see something, we can't change that directly. We might be able to eventually by retraining the brain through exposure and response prevention. But sometimes our fear center is just going to respond to the trigger with rush of adrenaline. But you can begin to understand and accept that this is what happens to your body during adrenaline rush.
This is normal for you. We can remind ourselves that. Just because our body overreacted to that sensation does not mean it's dangerous. Our fear center and our brain is designed to overreact. It's a survival mechanism. And we really can accept and allow or even tolerate, or sometimes I say like, "'oh well' it." We can "oh well" it until it calms on its own.
But in Step 3 when you're increasing your worry and rumination and you start catastrophizing, this is under your control. Worry and catastrophizing and rumination are controllable mental activities. It's like solving a math problem. That's a mental activity. When we recognize we're doing it, we can begin to eventually stop it. And you can allow the worry thought to just float there in the background. Maybe like hearing the neighbors play music that you don't like, you're just going to let it be and you shift your attention to what doing, instead of focusing on the annoying music or worry about your health. So this gets easier over time with practice.
Now in Step 4, your anxiety goes up, hyper-vigilance increases, bodily symptoms and sensations intensify. Is there anything you can do here? Yes. It isn't easy. And it gets much, much better with exposure and response prevention. But we can learn to accept and tolerate the anxiety. We can shift to observing the anxiety in a nonreactive way instead of being alarmed by it. We can even allow and welcome the hyper vigilance and the intensity of this sensations as a normal bodily reaction when we're in fight or flight or a high anxiety mode.
So you're feeling these things in your body because your sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight response, is being activated. Knowing this and allowing this without reacting to it really helps your brain learn that anxiety and bodily sensations are not dangerous. And this works to calm down the body itself. Our brains are like little toddlers or little baby animals, and we have to train them to not be so scared of anxiety symptoms. Because if they're taught to be scared, that anxiety cycle continues.
Now in Step 5, this is the step where you do specific behaviors in attempt to reassure yourself or calm yourself down. This is paramount here. This is the most important part of this talk. Everything that you do to prevent or calm down anxiety is actually making it worse. Every time you check your body symptoms, take your pulse, check your blood pressure, seek reassurance, Google and research symptoms, avoid going places, avoid the doctor ... Or maybe see the doctor too often or avoid being alone or carrying that water bottle, carrying that phone, carrying that medicine just in case, all of these behaviors and more are your attempts to feel safe. But they are all just an illusion. And everything that you do to make yourself feel safe is what is perpetuating and feeding your health anxiety cycle.
And this is where you have your best opportunity to break the cycle of health anxiety and get your life back. Not responding or reacting to our own health anxiety symptoms is called response prevention. And I'm going to talk more about that in Part 3. But your brain believes that all of these safety and avoidance behaviors are the only reason that you're still alive. And this is what feeds and maintains and keeps you trapped in that health anxiety cycle.
So my number one question from clients is how do you know? What if something really is wrong? So, of course, you need to have regular checkup and we work out those details in session. But you know it is health anxiety when the worry and your response to the worry is exaggerated and far outweighs any real health risk or diagnosis that's been identified.
If you are curious, if you're wondering if you might have health anxiety, I'm leaving a link for a free, quick, easy self-assessment for health anxiety in the description below this video. And don't miss out on Part 3 tomorrow on Relapse Prevention: What To Do If Anxiety Comes Back. I'll see you there. Take care. Bye-bye.
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