This type of anxiety can actually raise your risk of disease
Wash your hands. Wear two masks. Stay 6 feet apart. These wise messages for preventing the spread of COVID-19 are, unfortunately, fueling health anxiety in both people who were already a bit germ-phobic and in those who never worried much about getting sick. Add to that what one psychiatrist calls cyberchondria — the malign influence of fear-mongering about a wide variety of illnesses online and through social media — and you've got a lot of people feeling downright frightened about their health. About 12-24% of U.S. adults are experiencing this type of anxiety,
Signs You May Have Health Anxiety
- Obsessively looking up symptoms online.
- Frequent calls to your doctor for reassurance or appointments. Some docs say patients call six or more items a week.
- Fear of going outside — where you worry you'll bump into health risks even if you're careful.
- Frequent temperature checks.
- Compulsive hand-washing.
- Frequent checking of your ability to smell (since loss of it is one of the first signs of COVID-19).
- Worrying that you have a disease, but have no symptoms of it.
- Persistently worrying that you are ill even after your doctor gives you a clean bill of health.
- When you need treatment, an uncertainty that the right treatment has been recommended. In one study of orthopedic patients, those who intensely searched their condition online had a sense of uncertainty about their doctor's proposed treatments, had treatment-damaging health anxiety and had a reduced rate of positive outcomes of treatment!
Possible Side Effects
The irony, of course, is that health anxiety itself can make you sick long before you contract an actual infection or disease. The stress associated with it may interfere with sleep, weakening your immune defenses. Habits that reinforce hyper-cleanliness can actually kill off healthful bacteria that live on your skin, in your mouth and in your gut, increasing your risk for everything from depression to diabetes. Health anxiety even ups the risk of heart disease by around 70%, according to a 2016 Norwegian study. To top it off, obsessive anxiety about being sick can keep some people from going to the doctor when they really should. They may be trying to avoid hearing what they assume will be very bad news, and this makes them more vulnerable when they're actually ill.
Therapy: One of the best steps is to sign up for online or in-person cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). One study in The Lancet found that five to 10 sessions of CBT targeted at health anxiety was effective in easing symptoms and the benefits lasted for the two years they tracked the participants. Another study in JMIR Mental Health found online treatment with seven sessions of clinician-supported acceptance and commitment therapy (iACT) that used self-help texts, video clips, audio files, and worksheets over 12 weeks was substantially effective in reducing health anxiety symptoms.
Get Outside: You can also use nature to help ease health anxiety. According to a study from the University of Georgia, what the Japanese call "forest-bathing" helps dispel tension associated with the pandemic. Immersing yourself in nature for a while can make the complex components of the natural world (including germs and disease) seem less threatening.
Exercise: Physical exercise also dispels stress and may ease some of your anxiety temporarily. Aerobic—and interval training—are the most effective. Break a sweat. Your best bet is to do 30-60 minutes five days a week, but anything is better than nothing!