Do you find yourself over-analysing every potential cough or sneeze as a sign that you may have coronavirus? Or do you spend hours looking up symptoms on Google and seeking reassurance? Here’s some advice for dealing with health anxiety.
The coronavirus pandemic has given us a lot of things to worry about.
Gone are the days when the majority of our concerns revolved around what we were having for lunch or whether or not we could afford one more pint at the pub. Nowadays, it’s normal to find yourself worrying about the rising number of new cases or feeling overwhelmed by some new lockdown restrictions.
Of course, one of the biggest anxieties we’ve all had to face over the last couple of months is contracting the virus at the heart of all this drama. Some people might not worry too much about getting ill – for example, if they live alone and are following the rules – but many others are still pretty anxious about catching it, especially if they are, or live with, someone who is at higher risk.
Although this type of concern is obviously completely normal (after all, we’ve spent months listening to experts and scientists tell us all about how deadly and dangerous this thing is), there comes a time when worrying about how you’re feeling and checking symptoms online becomes a problem in and of itself, especially now that cold and flu season has increased the chance of us experiencing potentially anxiety-inducing symptoms.
“It’s important to recognise that while it’s normal to be feeling some level of anxiety in the current world context if you’re finding yourself becoming excessively worried and you’re symptom searching very frequently on Google, you’re likely to be suffering from health anxiety,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy.
It’s a problem many more of us are dealing with as a result of the pandemic – according to a study by the University of Bath conducted in April this year, the percentage of the population dealing with health anxiety has risen from 4-6% to 15% as a result of the pandemic.
While worrying about contracting the coronavirus from time to time is completely normal (and to be expected in the current climate), if you find yourself spending a significant amount of your day obsessing over how you’re feeling or asking others for reassurance, it might be time to address what’s going on.
“While it’s good to be alert and aware of how our bodies are feeling, we can still be responsible without falling into a negative spiral,” Touroni points out.
“If you find yourself panicking, pay attention to whether you might be catastrophising. Are you jumping to the worst-case scenario? Do you have symptoms of COVID or could it just be the common cold? Focus on the facts and try to see the whole picture.”
She continues: “When you notice that you’re having a catastrophic thought, tell yourself it’s just that – a thought. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Sometimes we can have unhelpful thoughts when we’re feeling a certain way.”
If you’re finding it difficult to recognise when you’re catastrophising, Touroni recommends using mindfulness to help increase your awareness of what’s going on in your mind.
“Practising mindfulness can be especially beneficial during this time – try practising 10 minutes of mindful meditation in the morning,” she says.
“Mindfulness allows us to become more aware of our thoughts so we can see when we’re allowing ourselves to get entangled in them in ways that are unhelpful.”
You could also try to take your mind off things by doing something you enjoy, whether that’s reading a book, chatting with friends or going for a walk. It may sound small, but taking your mind off the source of your anxiety – even if just for a few minutes – is a great way to give your mind a break.
Of course, it goes without saying that if these thoughts become increasingly frequent, or they’re starting to interfere with your everyday life, then it’s important to seek help from a qualified professional, such as a GP or a therapist.
At a time when so many of us are suffering with rising feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, doing all we can to take care of our mental health – including seeking help whenever that’s necessary – is incredibly important.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.