Health Anxiety - is 'cyberchondria' making you sick with anxiety?

Many of you may know that these days I like to exercise (a far cry from how I was during my school days!). I've been a member of my local running club for over a decade and, more recently, I've been converted to the 'joy' of bootcamps at their toughest. To my mind one of the greatest buzzes these days comes from a hard bootcamp where I feel like I've given all I can that day. 

Yet way back in 2007, I can remember the moments of despair of thinking I may never be able to run again (I've since run a load of marathons!). A few months earlier I'd run my fastest ever marathon and I'd been setting new personal bests across the board. I was on a high. I was getting faster! Then around that time, my knee started to hurt. I mean it really hurt. If I tried to run a few steps it was excruciating. Sometimes just walking was enough to have me in pain and sometimes even bending my knees to pick up my then baby daughter was enough to bring it on. In summary, it hurt lots and it wasn't going away.

I did what any runner would do and tried to push myself through it (bad idea!). I tried putting ice on it. I took over the counter painkillers. I tried resting it for a few days and going again. I tried anything else I could think of to get back running.

And then I hit on the great idea of researching my symptoms on Google.

A few clicks and I'm onto running injury websites. I've narrowing it down to knee issues. Have I tried ice, rest and stretching? Yes I have Dr Internet! Does it hurt more first thing in the morning, when going upstairs and if you try to do weight bearing exercises? Yes it does Doc!! I can feel 'the answer' to my problem is approaching!! I'm nearly there! And then...

CRASH! Doctor Internet tells me I need an operation on my knee which ('if' successful at all) will require 12 months of physio and rehab. WHAT?!!! 

So after the initial shock I do what any sensible person does. I leave that website and google other sites that might give me more of an answer than I like.

But they don't. I'm anxious, I'm down. Life sucks. It really does. (In those days believe me when I say I could sulk about not running for days...just ask my wife!).

A few days later I've taken the plunge along my path to knee surgery. I'm at the physio anxiously waiting for the bad news to be confirmed and a referral to the surgeon. Ever since I did my research my knee has seemed to hurt more regularly. I've found myself poking it and prodding it more and more and I've felt more convinced that my anxiety-fuelled worst-case scenario is coming true.

Fast forward 30 minutes and I'm leaving the physio, as happy as I would be if it were my birthday! It's just a minor niggle. I have exercises that will solve it! It doesn't even seem to be that painful now! Within a week or so I'm back running! I'm a running miracle!!! (Well not quite but it feels good!!!).

Cyberchondria Alive and Kicking

Now I've had my share of injuries, niggle and sore muscles form exercising since then. Yet I've never once been tempted back to searching symptoms on Google. And this is me and my miracle knee only last week at bootcamp jumping over tyres, running, doing lunges, bearcrawls and other things that make me cringe that I don't even know the name of:

health anxiety cyberchondria 

And, from the latest research (by a team including researchers from Imperial College London and King's College London) it seems that 'cyberchondria' or using 'Dr Google' is fuelling levels of health anxiety.

As the BBC wrote, "Worrying excessively about health, and going for unnecessary appointments and tests, is a growing problem - fuelled by looking up symptoms on the internet, researchers say." And this is soemthing I encounter more and more with my health anxiety clients. 

For example, a client with health anxiety may become more and more convinced that the ache in their chest is a heart problem. The more they focus on it, the worse it seems to feel and the more convinved they become that something is wrong, leading to more anxiety, more tension and more discomfort.

And then these health anxiety clients may seek answers online where symptoms are so vague that they could apply to anyone (and probably everyone). Yet that catastrophising thinking, fueled by anxiety, will 'stick' to the worst case and make it seem more and more the case.

Take for example the list of physical symptoms of anxiety listed on the NHS Choices website:

  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
  • muscle aches and tension
  • trembling or shaking
  • dry mouth
  • excessive sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • stomach ache
  • feeling sick
  • headache
  • pins and needles
  • difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)

Now I don't know about you but I reckon I have experienced at least half of those things in the last fortnight, none of which have been anxiety related. Yet if you already feel anxious, reading that list could well ramp up that anxiety and give you plenty of unwanted negative thoughts to occupy your mind.

Of course, if you suspect that you have anxiety (or any other ailment or condition for that matter), then you should go and see your GP. I'm sure they would be only too happy to help you. But looking up symptoms and self diagnosing is unlikely to offer many benefits to your sense of wellbeing. 

Again, from that BBC report,

"A team including researchers from Imperial College London and King's College London said the symptoms of health anxiety were often mistaken for those of a physical illness and included chest pains and headaches that didn't go away.

Even when a doctor offered reassurance that there was no underlying physical reason for their symptoms, patients continued to worry and look for a diagnosis."

And, of course, the interesting thing is that once I work with someone and the anxiety fades, so do the symptoms and so does that belief that there is something underlying that is seriously wrong with them. 

health anxiety cyberchondria hypnotherapy ely

3 Ways To Erode Health Anxiety 

When I work with my clients we use many techniques and strategies both within and outside sessions to curb their health anxiety. I can't cover all of them here but I would suggest that you do these three things:

1) Stop Trying To Be The Expert

The internet is a wonderful thing with a mass of information available in fractions of seconds. However, it has a couple of drawbacks where your health is concerned. Firstly you can't always be sure who has written the information or what their particular viewpoints, slants and biases are. It's a bit like standing in a crowded dark room and basing your health decisions on whoever shouts the loudest in that moment. 

Secondly, the health information is never about you. It's about what someone with X condition or Y condition may experience. Many times it is so general and vague and full of possibilities that it could be applied to 99% of the population (and in just about every case the answer will end up being cancer). 

No matter how many web pages you read, you are not the expert so stop trying to be and, if you need to, go and see someone who is appropriately qualified (and be prepared to trust their advice). You wouldn't (hopefully) start calling yourself a pilot and get into a plane because you'd read a lot of pages about flying...so don't try to be your own physician, doctor, physiotherapist etc.

2. Invest in Yourself

I've met people who spend more time looking after their car, keeping it running smoothly and giving it only the best fuel, than they do looking after themselves. If you don't exercise and eat healthily and instead spend endless hours in front of a screen filling yourself with caffeine, sugar and fat, then you may indeed find the wheels start to come off and you feel achy or unwell. 

And, such a lifestyle is fuel for worry, stress and anxiety.

So make a start right now to look after your brain and your body. Get moving and go for a 15 minute walk a day, cut back on the caffeine and sugar and start investing in your wellbeing. Not only will you feel better but you will likely worry less too.

3. Dam The Tide of Anxiety

One thing I often talk to my clients about is how anxiety is like a river, that is, if you are anxious then no sooner do you stop worrying about one thing than another thing comes to take its place. Not only that, but that river can gather force and momentum as it flows from worst case to worst case in those thoughts of the future in your mind.

To quell the tide of anxiety you need to learn how to calm your mind. That is, you need to learn how to relax so that you find yourself adopting a calmer perspective on things rather than catastrophising. Listen to my Rapid Relaxation audio daily for the next week or so, recognise when you are imagining the future and bring yourself back to the present, and start controlling your mind more and more. However you find doing this at first, like most things in life, with persistance and practice it gets easier to do and you get more benefical results from doing it.

To your success,

Dan Regan

Anxiety Help Ely & Newmarket

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