Health Anxiety: Most Important Tip
If you are like Mia, then you may have experienced health anxiety for years. For Mia, it was brought on by witnessing her mother's illness when she was a child. For you, it could have been triggered by witnessing a loved one maybe go through a health trauma or perhaps having a health trauma of your own. As cyclical and reoccurring as it is, there are effective treatments for health anxiety so that you can worry less, build up your confidence, and start enjoying your life again. Hi, I'm Paige Pradko, a psychotherapist that specializes in anxiety disorders and OCD. Welcome to Therapy for a Better Life.
Today, I'm going to talk about relapse prevention and what to do if your health anxiety comes back. This is the third part to a three-part series on health anxiety. I've shared a lot of treatment information in the series, so if you missed parts one and two, I'm going to leave those links for you in the description below this video. Before I get going on today's topic, if you're wondering, if you're curious if you have health anxiety, I'll also leave a link to a free health-anxiety self-assessment in the description below as well.
What if you were feeling better, and you thought you were good, and your health-anxiety worries and sensations came back? The relapse-prevention information that I'm going to share is really applicable to not only health anxiety but to all anxiety disorders and OCD because, unless you're a person that really never encounters change in your life, you have absolutely nothing that ever happens in your life, then you will have anxiety. We all do. It's part of being human. I like my clients to know this and to expect it because I don't want anyone's confidence to burst after treatment when they thought they were good and only to have a bout of it again later in their life.
I always use the phrase, "We treat anxiety, and health anxiety, and OCD. We don't cure it." As humans, we have this built-in alarm system that's just pre-programmed to overreact. Our sympathetic nervous system and our amygdala can just set off the alarm in an instant. As humans, we have bodily sensations and symptoms, and sometimes we have these unwanted intrusive thoughts and worries, and we have anxiety symptoms that we feel in our body. All of that is normal and not dangerous. The more we move toward accepting, and allowing it, and normalizing it by not doing anything in the moment to calm ourselves, the more non-reactive we are to anxiety and the body sensations, the better chance we have at sustaining our recovery.
Health-anxiety recovery is not a once-and-done thing, but you do have to know what to do when it pops up. Let me put it like this. If you worked really hard to get in shape, and you said, "Okay, I did it. That's it. Now, I'm done. Check that box," no, being fit is a lifestyle. It has to be part of your routine forever. Same thing with our weight. We could just lose a bunch of weight and say, "Okay, I'm done. All right, that's over." Nope. We have to learn how to maintain it. It's a lifestyle. It has to be prioritized forever. Guess what. This holds true for health anxiety or any other type of anxiety, disorder, or phobia, or OCD. Making progress and maintaining it is a lifestyle that has to be worked on forever. What does a lifestyle change mean to someone with health anxiety?
Well, it means doing all those things that I mentioned when I discussed breaking the health-anxiety cycle in part two. It means practicing response prevention by not reacting to your bodily sensations or doing anything to bring down your anxiety. It means not avoiding people, and places, and activities. It means building up and maintaining your confidence and courage to face your fears. It means no checking body symptoms like blood-pressure checks or pulse unless instructed to do so by your physician. It means no researching, or Googling, or seeking reassurance. It means no tracking of your body reactions on different devices like watches or fitness devices. It means no carrying that water bottle everywhere, no having that medicine just in case. It means letting go of all of the ways that you try to fool yourself that you are somehow keeping yourself safe.
Health anxiety and anxiety in general is maintained, it's fed, by your avoidance and safety behaviors, and it's those behaviors that need to be identified and destroyed. A lifestyle change for a life without health-anxiety symptoms means fully accepting that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot have certainty about your health. No one on the planet has it. It means changing your relationship with health anxiety and anxiety in general from, "I don't want this feeling. This feels dangerous. This is scary. I hate this. I want to get rid of this," to, "I'm accepting this anxiety. I'm accepting these sensations I feel in my body. Anxiety can stay as long as it wants to stay. I'm not concerned. I'm not going to react in any way. I'm just going to allow my body to do its thing." Understandably, this is not easy. It takes time for people to go from reactions to their triggers and symptoms to having less or no reaction at all.
There are lots of techniques and ERP and exposure treatments that we use in therapy to get you there. There are situational exposures, interoceptive exposures, imaginal scripts, incidental or in-the-moment exposures. There's lots of techniques to help you get there. It's a process, and that takes time and commitment. Right now, I'm just introducing you to the overall attitude of allowing and accepting anxiety symptoms in the body, not reacting to them by trying to calm yourself, and instead learning to tolerate and accept that we all live with uncertainty when it comes to our health. You might be wondering like, "Well, what about meditation? What about exercise? What about yoga, nutrition, walking in nature, socializing? What about all those breathing exercises or progressive relaxation? Aren't those things good for lowering your anxiety?" Well, yes, those things are all good, but they cannot be practiced in response to your anxiety in the moment, or the cycle continues.
All those things are part of your normal, healthy lifestyle. Maybe you do them at the same time every day or every week as part of your overall stress-management program and your overall healthy lifestyle, whether you're experiencing an anxiety flare-up or not. Sometimes people make great strides in treatment, but they still set a boundary for themselves. It's like, "I'm going to do all those things that Paige says, that she's talking about, but I'm only going to do them in my city or my defined area according to certain restrictions so that I feel safe." They may be happy with that, and that's great. That might be one level of their recovery, but they're more likely to have a relapse in their health anxiety or other anxiety disorders because they still hold this overall belief that anxiety symptoms in their body and sensations are dangerous.
They haven't changed their relationship with anxiety in their body. They'll have to make this change to this overriding belief to one of more acceptance and welcoming of anxiety symptoms or at least to a more unconcerned, non-reactive stance to have more lasting change. The most critical aspect to overcoming any anxiety disorder, including health anxiety, is the ability and willingness to embrace anxious feelings and sensations and become less fearful of them. So, if you're wondering if you may suffer from health anxiety, please see the description below for a link to a free and easy health-anxiety assessment. Until next time, I'll see you in session.
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