More on What Health Anxiety Is
As usual for me, I tend to take on a subject and dig into it so deeply it becomes many subtopics too vast to cover in one article.
This occurred for me again on the topic of health anxiety.
Anxiety is so prevalent, and so many are suffering, I thought it was vital that I provide more than a surface overview.
So, here we are at part three.
Let’s do a brief review for those who need to catch up.
First, I broadly defined health anxiety and explained why getting the proper diagnosis for a mental health issue is important. Misdiagnoses leads to overtreatment, undertreatment, and ineffective interventions and these could cause more harm than good. Therefore, there was a need to provide education on the brain health differences that result in anxiety disorders. This includes being aware that anxious brains have unique brain processing and cognitive patterns and functional alterations. It is also important to differentiate anxiety disorders from the transient, common symptoms of stress.
Next, I clarified the difference between a true anxiety disorder and “false anxiety.” If one can rid themselves of fearful brain chatter by balancing blood sugar swings and focusing on various lifestyle factors, it is likely not a true anxiety brain disorder. Rather, it is one who is struggling with anxiety symptoms from mind-body imbalances.
Now, it’s time to dive deeper into what healthy anxiety is.
Considering that lately many have been so focused on their bodily symptoms, and chronic stress can lead to psychiatric issues, this subject is imperative to understand.
If one is experiencing a health concern, it’s normal to pursue a diagnosis and see a health expert. However, when one has a clear bill of health and continues to relentlessly search for something that is wrong, it can be debilitating.
In this article, I’ll define what health anxiety is, the causes, risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment. I’ll also discuss why I believe that integrative medical care for brain health is the best approach.
What is Health Anxiety?
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states the following regarding health anxiety:
- 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.
Healthline states that health anxiety:
“… goes beyond having a normal concern for one’s health. It has the potential to interfere with a person’s quality of life, including their abilities to:
- work in a professional or academic setting
- function on a daily basis
- create and maintain meaningful relationships”
In summary, health anxiety is when one becomes so obsessed with their bodily symptoms that their life becomes about pursuing what’s wrong and not about living. No amount of assurance that everything is normal can stop someone from this preoccupation without professional help.
The Causes and Contributors of Health Anxiety
The cause(s) of health anxiety is still being debated, though several interacting factors are likely involved. A 2017 article, “Treatment of Anxiety Disorders,” states:
The current conceptualization of the etiology of anxiety disorders includes an interaction of psychosocial factors, eg, childhood adversity, stress, or trauma, and a genetic vulnerability, which manifests in neurobiological and neuropsychological dysfunctions.
The evidence for potential biomarkers for anxiety disorders in the fields of neuroimaging, genetics, neurochemistry, neurophysiology, and neurocognition has been summarized in two recent consensus papers.13,14 Despite comprehensive, high-quality neurobiological research in the field of anxiety disorders, these reviews indicate that specific biomarkers for anxiety disorders have yet to be identified.
The above makes it even more evident that there is nothing “not real” about anxiety or that it results from a lack of willpower. It is a brain health issue with alterations in brain processing, physiology, and cognitive patterns likely resulting from various psychosocial stimuli and a genetic component. (source, source, source, source)
- Beliefs: A poor understanding of body sensations, diseases, or both things. This leads to a vicious cycle of reinforcing and seeking out evidence that current symptoms are the result of an underlying, serious issue.
- Family history: Having family members who worried excessively about their health or your health.
- Past experiences: Past health traumas that make one frightened of future events.
Risk Factors for Health Anxiety
Health anxiety often manifests in middle age and can worsen over time.
- a stressful event or situation
- the possibility of a serious illness that turns out to not be serious
- being abused as a child
- having had a serious childhood illness or a parent with a serious illness
- having a worrying personality
- excessively checking your health on the internet
Overall, factors that lead to anxiety and mental health conditions are complex, individualized, and multifactorial. For example, a 2021 review article explored the risks associated with stress, anxiety, and depression (SAD) in undergraduate students in various countries. The results lead to many interacting aspects divided into the following categories:
Diagnosis of Health Anxiety
Diagnosis for heath anxiety is often one of exclusion. Many can spend years chasing symptoms because they believe they are biologically based and not a mental health issue.
A diagnosis is usually made after one’s astute physician performs a physical exam to thoroughly rule out any health conditions. If nothing is found, and the doctor is aware of one’s history of repeated visits with no findings, the doctor will likely refer to a mental healthcare professional.
Popular Treatments for Health Anxiety
Treatment can include several different medications and psychotherapy.
CBT (cognitive behavioral technique) is the most common intervention and has many advantages. These include:
- identifying your health anxiety worries and beliefs
- learning other ways to look at your body sensations by changing unhelpful thoughts
- raising your awareness of how your worries affect you and your behavior
- responding to your body sensations and symptoms differently
- learning to better cope with your anxiety and stress
- learning to stop avoiding situations and activities because of physical sensations
- avoiding examining your body for signs of illness and repeatedly looking for reassurance that you’re healthy
- boosting your functioning at home, work, or school, in social settings, and in relationships with others
- checking whether or not you’re suffering from other mental health disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder
I also feel that integrative medicine should be included with all treatments. In my previous post, I spoke about how a combination of conventional and natural approaches to mental health can provide optimal results. I have summarized the two main points below.
- Cognitive distortions or mindsets that trigger compulsions and ruminations cannot be addressed by natural factors alone. One may become dependent on the supplement, nutrient, or oil and eventually have to keep switching remedies. However, if one addresses the underlying thinking with psychotherapy as they support brain health, both treatments can be more effective.
- Accounting for brain health factors (e.g., hormones, nutrients, lifestyle factors, oxidative stress, genetic variations, etc.) that modulate neurochemistry and biology can make addressing the cognitive distortions much easier. This is because one’s biology is not overriding their psychology.
Using both CBT with additional natural tools can complement each other to reinforce new neural pathways. I have seen where nutritional support, essential oils, and brain nourishing foods can make transitions and discomfort with change much easier to manage. They can allow one to move through the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings with more ease.
A Holistic Approach to Anxiety and Mental Health Support
I strongly believe you cannot treat the physical without looking at the emotional. Furthermore, you cannot treat the emotional without peering into what physiologically and biochemically impacts brain health. (R)
For this reason, I have been laser focused on continuing the conversation of the mind-body connection, advocating for holistic mental health support, and the use of naturopathic doctors as support mediators for transformation.
I always consider all the integrative brain health factors when someone struggles with heath anxiety or any other mental health issue. I listed them here.
I don’t think we have to choose between conventional treatments and integrative ones. I think we can get the best of both and start supporting our mental health in a more comprehensive way. This includes help on the biochemical, functional, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and mental levels.
A Resource for You: A Podcast on Health Anxiety
I recently listened to a podcast from Your Anxiety Toolkit that highlighted a sufferer who is in recovery from health anxiety. It featured her and her mental health therapist discussing her treatment and what to expect. For those who want to hear a personal story of a patient who went from being stuck in anxiety to finding a way out with proper treatment, you may want to take a listen.
-What it is like to have health anxiety
-The key concepts to treatments
-Tips for managing fears
-A step-by-step approach to overcoming health anxiety
Summary and Conclusion on Health Anxiety
We now have a good idea of the importance of proper diagnoses for mental health conditions and the characteristics of anxiety, false anxiety, and heath anxiety.
I urge all those struggling, or that know someone who is, to learn about these mental health topics and seek professional help when needed. Knowledge can lead to less stigma, more understanding, and better brain care.
I have seen significant turn arounds with clients with the correct diagnosis and treatments.
No one should suffer alone when there is so much that can be done.
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If you struggle with mental health, please reach out for professional mental health support.
You may also wish to consider implementing holistic resources and partnering with a naturopathic doctor.
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.
Thanks Pixabay and Canva.