Health anxiety, also known as illness anxiety disorder, is a condition characterized by a hyper-attention to bodily sensations and a preoccupation with the fear of having or developing a serious medical illness.
The Role of Hyper-Attention in Health Anxiety
The individual may obsessively monitor their body for symptoms, engage in excessive checking behaviours, and avoid medical appointments due to a fear of receiving bad news.
The key element of health anxiety is hyper-attention, where the individual pays so much attention to bodily sensations that they notice even minor changes that would normally go unnoticed. They then apply meaning to these sensations, interpreting them as signs of serious illness, and become highly anxious as a result. However, not all bodily sensations are indicative of illness, and it is important to be aware of one’s threshold for noticing these sensations.
Shifting to Another Part of the Brain
To manage health anxiety, it is important to shift focus away from the perceptual mind and towards the analytical mind. By engaging in activities that require analytical thinking, such as problem-solving, making sense of things, and analysing situations objectively, one can slow down the central nervous system and reduce anxiety. A useful technique is to shift attention towards external perception, where the individual focuses on naming three things they can hear, touch, or see in their surroundings. This technique helps to shift the focus away from bodily sensations and towards external stimuli, reducing hyper-attention and anxiety. In addition, using concrete objects in the environment switches away from having to make a judgement to merely describing.
Getting Out of the Perceptual Mind
Reflecting on one’s health anxiety and making a distinction between worry and actual symptoms can also be helpful. By acknowledging that health anxiety is a pattern of behaviour that one engages in, the individual can take steps to differentiate between symptoms and anxiety-driven bodily sensations. This practice can also help to increase a sense of control over one’s thoughts and emotions.
Health anxiety is a condition characterized by hyper-attention to bodily sensations and a fear of serious medical illness. To manage health anxiety, it is important to shift focus away from bodily sensations and towards analytical thinking. Engaging in activities that require problem-solving and making sense of situations can help to slow down the central nervous system and reduce anxiety. Reflecting on one’s health anxiety and making a distinction between worry and actual symptoms can also be helpful.