Many of us have felt shamed for worrying too much about our health. However, health anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s natural to feel health anxiety–and it’s arguably better to worry too much than too little about your health.
So when is health anxiety just anxiety? When and how should you advocate for yourself, to minimize stigma when seeking care?
Ignoring symptoms carries risk, and sometimes your gut is right
From cancer to unplanned pregnancies, sometimes symptoms arise seemingly out of nowhere. Without a clear cause, one might be tempted to dismiss these symptoms–and people often do just that.
Over 40% of Americans routinely avoid visiting the doctor, according to research from the University of Chicago. And that can have shocking consequences. For example, 30-50% of cancer deaths could be prevented by basic care and routine screening. On average, people with autoimmune diseases suffer over 4 years before receiving appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Thus, it’s arguably healthy to have health anxiety, and to take even small concerns seriously. Of course, it’s important to save limited healthcare resources for those most in need. But it’s never a bad idea just to contact your doctor.
Know that anxiety can physically exacerbate health symptoms
Your doctor might consider anxiety as a cause for your symptoms, especially if they know you have health anxiety. That stings, but their conclusion usually isn’t because they disrespect you or don’t trust you.
Anxiety can certainly cause physical symptoms, though this is not at all to say it’s “in your head.” On the contrary, if you are having major anxiety, it’s hard to avoid having concrete physical effects. The mind and body play off of each other, so health anxiety is a double-edged sword. It might help you notice real issues, but it can also magnify those issues by its effects on various body systems.
Health symptoms that can be caused or worsened by anxiety’s impact on the nervous system and other body systems:
- Muscle tension
- Stomach pains and digestive trouble
- Headaches and migraines
- Skin issues
- Dry mouth
In situations like these, addressing your anxiety can potentially help address your health symptoms. If a doctor blames anxiety for these symptoms, it may be a legitimate conclusion–not calling you a hypochondriac.
If you believe anxiety isn’t to blame, then it will help for you to demonstrate that you’ve done all you can to reduce your anxiety (more on that later).
How can you tell whether you should push the issue, beyond anxiety, with your doctor? How do you know if health anxiety is blowing your situation out of proportion?
The more of the following that are true for you, the more likely it is not “just health anxiety.”
- Symptom onset did not coincide with any major stressors or life events
- The symptoms don’t correlate with known mind-body symptoms (listed above)
- Symptoms are causing concrete issues in my life (not just annoying or interesting)
- My issue is persistent, rather than coming-and-going
- I have effective coping mechanisms for my anxiety
Use Occam’s razor
If you tend to jump to conclusions, use “Occam’s razor” to pump the brakes. Occam’s razor is the logical practice of determining the simplest chain of events.
Using Occam’s razor for health anxiety means asking yourself: what’s the simplest possible explanation for my symptoms that makes sense in this context?
Sometimes the answer to that question is “anxiety.” However, anxiety often fails to fully explain the situation. In these cases, you’ll want to advocate for further care, but still avoid jumping to the worst case scenario. This practice can help you “talk yourself down” from worry about a rare or catastrophic illness.
Avoiding the medical stigma of health anxiety
If you can be sure you’ve addressed the factors below, communicate that to your healthcare provider. These are important points to advocate for yourself, in order to avoid stigma related to your health anxiety.
Clarify how you’re taking care of yourself
Explain how you’ve tried addressing basic culprits like sleep quality, malnutrition, lack of exercise, and social stress. This will help your doctor determine the potential role of lifestyle in your symptoms.
You want to let them know that you’re doing your best to help yourself (rather than wallowing in your symptoms). Basics to cover:
- How are you sleeping? Length and quality
- What do you do for exercise?
- How is your diet?
- Do you have major stressors in your life? How do you cope with those?
- Do you have a trusted social support network?
Describe the ways in which you manage your health anxiety
Doctor’s appointments are so short, that sometimes a doctor will point to anxiety because it is often left unaddressed and does have potential to cause health symptoms.
If it’s clear that you understand anxiety could impact your symptoms, and you’ve tried to solve it, your doctor can address the next most likely culprit. So, paint them a picture of what you do to manage your anxiety. Some examples of what you might be doing–or what you might consider trying before ruling out anxiety as a cause for your symptoms:
- Psychiatric medication
- Practicing mindfulness
- Doing yoga
- Peer support
- Belly breathing
- Using Occam’s razor for health concerns
Explain how your symptoms interfere with daily life
If they know you have anxiety, a less-than-generous doctor might think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill, stewing in your emotions and crying out for attention. They might conclude you’re asking about a problem that doesn’t need to be solved.
Let them know that’s not the case, by explaining how your symptoms interfere with your function in the world. Describe the concrete effects that are making life harder than it has to be. Give your doctor “stakes” for helping you find a solution!
- Are you having trouble at work?
- Is your mobility impacted?
- How often do symptoms keep you from fulfilling responsibilities?
- Can you maintain basic hygiene?
- Does travel pose a problem?
Know when to trust your gut and insist on care
Having health anxiety doesn’t mean you’re imagining the things you’re feeling, but it can make you notice health issues before they’ve escalated to “clinical” status. Because the health system isn’t set up for preventative care and leans toward reactionary care, doctors may dismiss people who notice early-stage problems.
Sometimes this nonchalance makes sense. Resources are very limited in most health systems, and doctors are expected to prioritize. Most testing and care is expensive. Other times, a doctor’s dismissal of symptoms does not make sense.
There is an art to knowing when to insist on further testing and/or medical action. Some indications that you should trust your gut include:
- Worsening pain unexplained by lifestyle factors
- Symptoms occur when you’re not stressed
- Issues interfere with activities of daily living
- You’re concerned about a problem that can’t be treated, only slowed
- You have a family history of the potential diagnosis in question
In the end, remember that it’s only human to have anxiety about your health. Worry may make some symptoms worse, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Acknowledge the potential connection between worry and symptoms, but know that it’s not always “just anxiety.”
If you feel stigmatized for your health anxiety, remember that you’re the best judge of your own experience, and it’s not illogical to err on the side of caution.
Especially if you’re doing all you can to help your anxiety, it’s usually a good idea to trust your gut.