During the pandemic, illness anxiety has increased for susceptible individuals. Illness anxiety is a term for considering that an individual may be “seriously ill, or pre-occupied with contracting a disease or other health condition.” (Mayo Clinic, June 2018). Individuals with illness anxiety often fear that their symptoms are related to a disease that is much more serious.
For example, illness anxiety may be triggered by experiencing atypical migraine symptoms. Individuals that experience ocular migraines may experience blurred vision or even temporary blindness and other visual disturbances. These symptoms may or may not be accompanied by a headache. These symptoms can come on suddenly and interfere with daily functioning. They can be very difficult to predict, until potential triggers are identified. The unpredictability and lack of control over these symptoms may trigger an anxiety and panic response, exaggerating the effects of the migraine.
When individuals experience illness anxiety they may believe they are dying. They may google their various symptoms online and catastrophize the outcome. They may become so pre-occupied with experiencing their illness that they cannot function and cope effectively in their daily lives. They may seek out and receive several professional opinions from various healthcare professionals and despite clear results, continue to doubt that they are well.
Illness anxiety may lead to obsessive thoughts about illness, avoiding going out places or seeing other people due to excessive worries about health, searching for information that confirms or perpetuates fears about the illness, and developing coping behaviors (ie checking body for signs of disease).
What to do about this debilitating anxiety? Since individuals who experience this preoccupation with their health are often not convinced by clear test results, doctors visits, or other reassurances, they may not find relief through gathering information. In fact, too much information can exacerbate an individual’s anxiety, and may cause them to experience far greater forms of catastrophic thinking….(googling symptoms may turn up thousands of potential results).
Here are some alternative coping strategies to try:
1. Instead of reaching for the phone or computer to check symptoms, take out a notebook and write down some of your anxious thoughts. Then read some of the thoughts out loud. This may help you recognize that some of your thoughts and fears sound unrealistic when written down.
2. Push through your anxieties with exercise. Ie, A relaxing yoga session may help to tap into your body, center yourself, and work through some of your symptoms.
3. Practice deep breathing, and grounding techniques. Stabilize your body through breath work, and ground yourself in the present moment.
4. Say a positive health mantra, “I will be okay. I am not dying. My symptoms are real, but I know that I can get through this. My test results are clear. I have all the information I need right now.”
5. Stop Googling! Seriously, stop. No amount of research or googling symptoms will improve your experiencing of them. In fact, it will usually make the anxiety worse.
6. Engage in a healthy distraction. Find an activity you enjoy, and immerse yourself in it. Eg, music, playing an instrument, cooking, artwork, creating something new. Channel the anxious energy into doing something productive (and not googling).
7. Pay attention to daily functioning, like sleep and diet. Sometimes a simple dietary change can improve symptoms considerably. For instance, in the case of migraines, there is often a list of potential dietary triggers! Do what you can to regulate your basic body rhythm, to determine whether symptoms improve.
Remember that while you may not be able to control your symptoms or your illness, you can choose where to focus your energy. After all health checks have been cleared, trust that your illness will likely improve with time. You may not have all the answers, but you have the ability to facilitate a healthy mind and body response in the process.