Taking Control of Health Anxiety following Covid

It seems around half of us have had our mental health negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Young people have been affected even more. Lockdown, whether you agree or disagree with it, was implemented to take control of the virus. However, I do wonder how much consideration was given to the impact this strategy would have on our mental health. Anxiety has increased and there are many ways this manifests itself. One way after an outbreak of a disease or illness is with an increase in health anxiety.

Health anxiety is fearing that a person has or will get an illness or a disease. It is often referred to as hypochondria or illness anxiety disorder. During a pandemic it is normal for our stress and anxiety levels to rise as we maintain behaviours that we subconsciously believe will keep us safe. Those who already suffer from health anxiety or, other types of anxiety, are most likely to see an increase in their anxiety overall during a pandemic.

According to a study, those with mental health issues are likely to see their mental health worsen due to Covid 19. The young are most likely to be affected with over two thirds of them having worse symptoms according to the mental health charity, Mind.

Health anxiety sufferers can become fixated on the debilitating thoughts that they are going to be gravely ill or die.

The reality is that someone with health anxiety is no more likely to become unwell than anyone else. This rational has little bearing on their reality. Ironically however, the stress of the health anxiety can lead to symptoms which can be misinterpreted as a concerning illness. Perhaps laboured breathing through panic is mistaken as a symptom of Corona Virus. The Reticular Activating System (RAS), once programmed to be alert to a particular stimuli, then seeks them out. Symptoms that could be considered unsafe means the mind of a health anxiety sufferer is on the ‘look out’ for any tiny minute changes. They are then more likely to finds them.

We have been inundated with information about Covid. The news, social media along with the lifestyle changes that have been necessary all impact how we think and feel. Whatever your thoughts on how the UK government has handled Covid, the reality is we are likely to be living in a very different world, here and further afield, for the foreseeable future. Restrictions and limitations are going to continue in different guises in an attempt to manage our physical health. However, these changes will impact mental health too.

Humans are social creatures. Growing up in a socially distant world will have implications on ‘learning’. This new way of behaving will have  negative outcomes on our children’s mental health. 

It is natural for us to usually gravitate to one another.In the attempt to minimise the spread of Covid we have altered our behaviours and these changes alter our thoughts. We are being encouraged to wash our hands regularly (to the length of twice Happy Birthday), regularly use hand sanitiser, wear face masks when in public and keep 1 to 2 metres apart. Distanced queuing and avoiding each other by crossing the road has already become the new norm.

I have huge concerns on how children and teenagers will be impacted as they develop in a society where we are expected to maintain distance from one another. What will the outcome be for anxiety towards health? Only time will really tell but I predict a health anxiety pandemic on the horizon.

As the brain develops it assesses and learns from the situations it is exposed to. It then uses these experiences to create a unique map of the world which will define the best way for that individual to behave for them to survive. In the developing mind of a youngster I really wonder how this can be a good way to approach interacting with one another. I get that it may be necessary for the control of the virus but I refer to the implications beyond the virus. I have concerns over the impact that schooling with avoidance of one another and not being able to play with toys freely will have.

What are we teaching our children?

Overtime with the new norms in place, children can learn that to feel safe they should avoid certain types of interactions. If things, including other humans, are considered a threat a child will behave to minimise that threat. For example, they learn that a door handle has germs so it is only touched with a tissue. Elbow pumps, ankles kicks and self-hugging are current alternative gestures for a hug or a handshake which could then become the only correct way to greet another person.

When there is a development of neural pathways in the brain that transmit the understanding that to stay safe certain stimuli must be avoided, anxious behaviours become created. These include obsessive thoughts that are considered the truth and compulsive actions such as avoidance to create control.

health anxiety
Photo: Ivan Aleksic

Signs of health anxiety include:

  • Thinking a certain symptom is an extreme illness, e,g. a headache is a brain tumour
  • Constantly googling symptoms of illnesses/ diseases
  • Following the news or social media obsessively to keep an eye on the current situation during a pandemic/ outbreak
  • Overwhelming anxious thoughts
  • Avoiding behaviours, e.g. cancelling arrangements or making excuses to not go somewhere
  • Altering behaviours to minimise contact with germs, for example using a cloth to open a door handles
  • Repeated GP appointments or continually asking for referrals
  • Avoidance of the doctors in case of a diagnosis

The mental health impact of Covid-19 is going to be long lasting. I believe health anxiety will be one of the mental health issues that will have a huge increase, in both the young and in adults.

How you can help yourself if you are suffering from health anxiety:

  • Avoid the news or limit yourself to a very specific and set amount of time.
  • Have a worry window. Schedule in the diary a 10 or 15 minute period when you can embrace the worry.
  • Understand that seeking reassurance reinforces the problem. For example, having a medical test come back clear helps to reduce the anxiety temporarily, until the next symptom. The reduction in anxiety from the reassurance then perpetuates the behaviour. It appears to work as a way to reduce health anxiety. Actually, the opposite is true as more reassurance is then needed to continue to feel ok.
  • Keep a diary of your behaviours and thoughts so you can understand the frequency. You can also use this to question the validity of those thoughts. This is not questioning their existence but questioning whether they are actually ‘true’.
  • Know that emotions are transient. Whether you feel anxiety, anger or sadness the emotion will pass. All emotions are temporary. Learning to live with an emotion without reaction can give you back control.
  • Seek professional help. I have helped many people to understand that their thoughts are unhelpful and irrational. Most importantly enabling them to manage them and in turn change their behaviours. Sometimes we work to change the behaviours and then the thoughts and sometimes vice versa. Hypnotherapy, CBT and NLP and counselling are all a part of working with me.
  • Know you can learn to move on from your anxious thoughts. However many times you have thought a thought about your health does not mean it is true.

Hypnotherapy works on the subconscious mind which is where our survival instincts are held. Sometimes our behaviour and thoughts become unhelpful. We can bring them back in line with how we want to live our lives instead of being dictated to by them. Get in touch today to discover how I can help you to manage your health anxiety.

“Reality is not so much what happens to us; rather, it is how we think about those events that create the reality we experience, In a very real sense this means that we can create the reality in which we live.” Albert Ellis