How To Tell If You Have All-Too-Common Health Anxiety

A lot of life-affecting behaviors have relatively recently been labeled what they are — symptoms of anxiety. People who were once dismissed as simply "worrying too much" or "overthinking things" are officially validated that they have a medical disorder that, when out of control, can seriously impact their lives. Although people can become anxious over lots of things, from finances to love, a common trigger is a health-related issue. Real or imagined, these problems can cause health anxiety ranging from low-level to seriously affecting daily life. This and other types of anxiety often manifest in a lot of overwhelming worries or thoughts, and these thoughts often happen constantly (or far too often to have a good quality of life, anyway).

Anxiety also shows up in physical ways if it turns severe, as it's not at all unusual for anxious people to experience unsettling symptoms like a racing heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, and so on, says the American Psychological Association (APA). So, in a nutshell, it's a common occurrence that health anxiety results in actual or additional health problems. It's quite a vicious cycle.

This is what health anxiety is, exactly

The Internet has gifted us with so much. We stay better connected with faraway friends and can rapidly research whatever our hearts and minds desire. However, the latter can actually be quite negative, especially for the person who Googles "funny-looking mole" and then becomes convinced they've got stage four melanoma. Although some people certainly do wind up with melanoma, the vast majority of those middle-of-the-night researchers just need a mole cut out. People who research potential health ailments to excess likely suffer from a type of health anxiety.

One form of health anxiety is somatic symptom disorder, in which the person worries to excess about a fairly vague physical symptom, like fatigue or dizziness, but they do it to the point where it actually causes their body to go into distress mode, per APA. Or, there's illness anxiety disorder, also known as hypochondriasis, says the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). This is when someone worries about their physical well-being constantly, even if they don't have any wayward symptoms. In either case, people frequently go down the rabbit hole into the Internet, plugging in symptoms and coming up with terrifying diagnoses. Everyone Googles symptoms every once in a while, and if done with the right perspective it can be very helpful. However, those folks who diagnose every tiny headache as an inoperable brain tumor, then suffer distress because of it, are likely in the throes of a significant mental illness.

What to do when health anxiety spirals out of control

Ironically, the main treatment for somatic symptom disorder is visiting the doctor regularly. The role of the doc is to soothe any worries and help the patient discern the difference between symptoms that are concerning or not. If actual symptoms are at play, it's important to figure out the cause. It's also critical for anyone dealing with health anxiety to go to therapy, however, so that they can learn to avoid triggers and alter how they deal with such concerns, APA says. Psychotherapy allows people to work through the reasons behind these fears (maybe their mother died of cancer or ALS and so they are worried about a similar fate) and teach them how to better respond to anxious thoughts. 

Sometimes, Mayo Clinic says, antidepressants are helpful as well. Other people turn to natural anxiety remedies like dietary changes, breathing exercises, and supplements to get relief. Most things are fine in moderation, and that goes for health questions as well. Who among us hasn't done a search on the common cold vs. allergies vs. the flu? But when it takes over a person's life to the point that it keeps them up at night or gets in the way of normal functioning, it's time to skip Google and head straight to a professional.