If you ask any friend or family member whether they have ever worried about their health, most people will probably admit to having some health-related concerns from time to time. Interestingly, the same things that would make any other person worry about their health could trigger off an episode of health anxiety.
It is usually when these triggers are combined with a set of inflexible and inaccurate health rules or assumptions that health anxiety is triggered. These triggers can be something internal within us or external in our environment.
Remember in the last module we talked about our bodies as being like old cars. Over
time they will develop some strange noises and start to run a bit rougher.
All-in-all, it is normal to feel some symptoms and sensations in your body. This can include stomach discomfort, tingling or numbness in parts of your body, ringing in your ears, sensitivity to heat or cold in your teeth, increases or decreases in your heart rate, changes in your saliva production, and variations in your energy levels. Sometimes new or unfamiliar symptoms may begin for you, such as the onset of
headaches or development of a rash. Many women whilst pregnant will also report a range of new and sometimes bizarre sensations in their bodies. You may even have unusual sensations, such as developing a strange taste in your mouth or a muscular twitch under one of your eyes.
Besides things happening within your body, a number of external things can draw your attention towards possible health problems and therefore trigger off episodes of health anxiety.
· Health scares in the news
· Upcoming medical appointments
· Being in contact with people who are unwell
· Hearing about someone who has been diagnosed with an illness
· Receiving inconclusive results on a medical test
· Being told you do have a health condition
· Being away from known health-care systems (e.g., travelling overseas)
How Health Anxiety is Maintained
Unhelpful Health Related Thinking
If your unhelpful health rules or assumptions are activated by the types of triggers just mentioned, they are likely to negatively affect the way you think about sensations or variations in your body, and how you interpret health information from medical professionals or other sources. In general, people with health anxiety tend to overestimate the likelihood that they have a serious health problem and underestimate
their ability to cope with such a problem. They also tend to discount other factors which suggest that things will not be as bad as they have predicted (e.g., overlook their doctor’s reassurance that a serious illness is unlikely, focus on the most negative potential outcomes rather than the chances of cure or good management). As such, all health-related experiences are viewed as a ‘catastrophe’ or ‘worst-case’ scenario.
Catastrophic interpretation of bodily sensations
If you hold an unhelpful health assumption such as “All discomfort and bodily changes are a sign of serious illness”, and are then faced with the trigger of experiencing pain in your joints, you may come up with catastrophic interpretations of what the pain means. You might say things like: “This could be arthritis”, “I probably have bone cancer”, “This problem will be the end of me”, or “This could be something incurable”.
Catastrophic interpretation of health-related information
You may also misinterpret health information as indicating that you are at higher risk
than you really are. For example, imagine that your doctor tells you that your blood
test showed a low white blood cell count but that it is “…probably just due to a
common cold”. If you hold the unhelpful health assumption “If my doctor doesn’t
know exactly what the problem is, then it must be really serious” you are more likely
to come up with thoughts such as “Maybe it is actually leukaemia”, or “My doctor
hasn’t tested for really serious problems like HIV or Lupus, so there is a chance that
is what I actually have”.
Increase in Anxiety Symptoms
As you can probably imagine, if you start having catastrophic thoughts about your bodily sensations, you are likely to be firing up your fight/flight response in reaction to this perceived threat to your health. Your fight/flight response is designed to protect you by helping you survive a battle (“fight”) or to run away to save yourself (“flight”) and can include the following changes:
muscular tension, tiredness or exhaustion
skipping, racing or pounding heart
changes in breathing rate/breathlessness, chest pain or pressure
dizziness, light-headedness, blurred vision, confusion, feelings of unreality and hot flushes
numbness and tingling in your fingers and toes
an increase in sweating
widening of the pupils, blurred vision, spots before the eyes, a sense that the light is too bright
a dry mouth, nausea or an upset stomach
You may notice one, some or all of these symptoms in varying degrees of intensity.
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