After all that we have gone through for the past two years, it’s hard not to be hyper-focused on bodily symptoms.
What if it’s ruling your life, though?
What if even after having a clean bill of health, it’s not enough to calm your mind?
You may be constantly worrying…
Every grumble, rumble, heartbeat, chill…what if???
Could it be health anxiety?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
There are two types of health anxieties: Somatic Symptom Disorder and Illness Anxiety Disorder, formally known as hypochondriasis.
Many people with health anxiety are often unable to function or enjoy life due to their fears and preoccupations.
They obsess over bodily functions (breathing, heartbeat), physical oddities (skin blemishes), and physical discomfort (headaches, stomach aches, lightheadedness).
They might worry about a specific organ (brain, heart) or a disease they heard about on the news or at work (MS, diabetes).
They are preoccupied with the belief that they have, or are in danger of contracting, a serious illness.
Many will pursue doctors and tests repeatedly for reassurance but are reluctant to seek mental health treatment since they believe their condition is medically based.
As noted above, reassurance and tests being cleared as “normal” only calm someone with health anxiety for a fleeting minute.
Then, the questions begin again:
“What if something was missed?”
“Did the doctor mention it could be…too?”
“What was the percent risk…?”
These health obsessions can become a vicious cycle of running to the doctor, getting tested, and running back for a second opinion. One is always preoccupied and searching for what is “REALLY” wrong.
Can you relate?
We are living in a world where our amygdalas have been hijacked by negative news and current events.
I would suspect this specific form of anxiety is only likely to increase more, as we’ve seen with the mental health crisis and the rise in psychiatric symptoms.
In order to help them, we had to first acknowledge what it was and get them professional mental health support from an expert. This was complimented with our work on brain health and emotional, spiritual, and mind-body factors.
In this article, I will discuss more about anxiety, what it isn’t, and provide tips on getting the proper diagnosis.
There is hope, and you don’t need to be trapped in your head.
Receiving the Right Mental Health Diagnosis
Before we review more on what health anxiety is, I will discuss why the right diagnosis matters and what it is NOT.
Misdiagnosis in psychiatry is more common than expected. It can result in overmedication, undertreatment, or ineffective interventions. The consequences are substantial. These include social and occupational impairment, substance use disorder, and suicide risk. (R, R, R)
For example, in a 2021 systemic review article on the misdiagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the most disabling mental health disorders and also a highly misdiagnosed one, lack of knowledge in the condition resulted in OCD sufferers often being undiagnosed for ten or more years.
Furthermore, in 2013, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported on overdiagnosis in depression. Specifically, the study examined adults with clinician-identified depression and individuals who experienced major depressive episodes within a 12-month period. According to their website:
…when assessed for major depressive episodes using a structured interview, only 38.4 percent of adults with clinician-identified depression met the 12-month criteria for depression, despite the majority of participants being prescribed and using psychiatric medications. The results are featured in the April 2013 issue of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.
Regarding anxiety, many clinicians are concerned with the comorbidity of anxiety and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Not understanding the differences between them can lead to mismanagement of treatment, especially in children. (R, R)
According to an article in Attitude:
…people with ADHD also have fears that are based on real events in their lives. People with ADHD nervous systems are consistently inconsistent. The person is never sure that her abilities and intellect will show up when they are needed. Not being able to measure up at the job or at school, or in social circles is humiliating. It is understandable that people with ADHD live with persistent fear. These fears are real, so they do not indicate an anxiety disorder.
A correct diagnosis is the key to good treatment outcomes. The distinction between anxiety and hyperarousal makes a big difference in which treatments will work.
Factors that need to be considered to prevent misdiagnosis include: stigma, lack of awareness, issues with diagnosis accuracy, self-diagnosis, awareness of overlapping issues, comorbidities, and masking symptoms. (R, R, R, R, R) This is why if you have a mental health concern, it is imperative to work with a licensed mental health professional, along with a primary care physician, to provide the proper diagnosis.
Having an open and honest conversation regarding your struggles and being forthright about substance use and other conditions are vital information that your healthcare providers need to accurately get you the best support. A therapeutic relationship with your doctor is healing in itself, so make sure you are comfortable with him/her as well.
More on Health Anxiety, What It’s Not
(1) Coping with a Scary Diagnosis
Health anxiety is not the same as someone who has a legitimate health diagnosis and is coping and coming to terms with it. For those not with health anxiety, knowing what is wrong can lead to empowering actions.
Health anxiety is when one’s brain is constantly scaring the health out of oneself and there is no physical evidence of a disease process. It can lead to feelings of terror and feeling disempowered.
(2) Anxiety is Not Stress
One of the most common mistakes I hear people make is labeling “stress” as “anxiety.”
It is true that chronic stress can cause structural patterns in the brain that lead to anxiety or mental health issues, but they differ in brain physiology. As I stated in my post, “Is it Stress or Anxiety?”:
Although chronic stress has been associated with, and is a risk factor for, anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders, there is a distinction between the two and treatments often differ. (R, R, R, R, R, R, R, R) According to the American Psychological Association:
There’s a fine line between stress and anxiety. Both are emotional responses, but stress is typically caused by an external trigger. The trigger can be short-term, such as a work deadline or a fight with a loved one or long-term, such as being unable to work, discrimination, or chronic illness. People under stress experience mental and physical symptoms, such as irritability, anger, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive troubles, and difficulty sleeping.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor. Anxiety leads to a nearly identical set of symptoms as stress: insomnia, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, muscle tension, and irritability.
Previously I’ve discussed in detail, that there are brain processing patterns that are characteristic of individuals diagnosed with a mental health illness. For example, studies have demonstrated that those with psychiatric disorders have different neurotransmitter and neuroendocrine signaling, anatomical and neuroimaging findings on brain scans, and genetic variations than those without diagnoses. (R, R, R, R, R)…
A major clinical distinction is that the brains of those with anxiety “neurologically fire” on an ongoing basis. These individuals can experience dread, panic, or fear in any situation, even in circumstances that that are supposed to be “enjoyable.” Those who do not have an anxious or depressed brain are able to get back to their set point after a stressful event is over, though some additional natural or conventional coping strategies during and after may be required. (R, R, R, R)
Could it Be “False Anxiety?”
Another term that is becoming popular is “false anxiety,” coined by Dr. Ellen Vora. Initially, this term made me uncomfortable, as there is nothing “false” about anxiety. However, as I dove into it a little more, I realized it may just be a different viewpoint and perspective on a brain health imbalance.
I will explore more about my take on false anxiety and provide more clarity on health anxiety in an upcoming post.
The Rise in Anxiety and the Need for Holistic Mental Health Support
Unfortunately, mental health is still misunderstood, stigmatized, and not effectively treated. Even among experts, there is the concern for misdiagnosis and applying inappropriate interventions.
An integrative approach providing holistic mental health support can help to fill in the gaps in conventional care. Integrative doctors can assess for brain health factors that may not be addressed in typical psychiatric treatments. In this way, naturopathic and functional medicine doctors can act as support mediators for transformation to mind-body-spirt health.
With our current mental health crisis and two out of five Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, it is likely that, if you are not struggling yourself with a mental health issue, you know someone who is.
Please make sure that you and/or your loved ones are receiving the appropriate care. No one needs to stay in suffering when there are tools to help overcome brain health challenges and move forward into a better life.
I urge all those struggling to seek professional help and educate yourself.
I have seen significant turn arounds with clients with the correct diagnosis and treatments.
Did you know about health anxiety and what is your experience?
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If you struggle with mental health, please reach out for professional mental health support.
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For example, I offer mind-body support for general mood issues using a functional medicine and wellness-oriented approach.
Disclaimer: This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
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