COVID-19 is a hot topic in the news right now and is also on the minds of many, some more heavily than others. For those who are already vulnerable to health anxiety, hearing news reports and anecdotal stories can flare this up quickly. Even those who did not realize they were vulnerable to health anxiety may find themselves starting to worry and even panic. So what can be done to straddle that fine line between reasoned concern and health anxiety? What can be done to support yourself in dealing with health anxiety? Let’s explore.
First of all, determining what is reasonable versus unreasonable can be difficult. Our brains are very intelligent and able to convince us, sometimes pretty easily, that we are being reasoned when, in fact, we are not. How come our brain does this? Partly it is an evolutionary response; our brains are trained to find threats and get us to safety. But partly it is this mechanism on overdrive. Our brains also get trained by dopamine and adrenaline to “do more” of something, which can include worry. So the more we worry, the more dopamine our brain gets, which can inadvertently tell our brain this is helpful, even when it is not. Many people are stuck in this loop of their brain looking for that bigger and bigger hit and, therefore, are vulnerable to health anxiety.
It would be important to look at the situation and ask yourself: Do I have some information about what is happening? Have I taken all necessary and reasonable steps to take care of myself? Checking this out with external sources can be a helpful reality check to determine if the steps you are taking seem reasoned or exaggerated. You can also look at your feelings-if there is heightened panic, paranoia, hypervigilance, and/or worry and stress, then chances are your brain is caught in this loop of dopamine seeking. Obviously there is a health concern out there with COVID-19 but the chances of it having a significant health impact on you if you are healthy and less than the age of 65 is low. Looking at your local government’s discussion and updates about COVID-19 once/week or so can also be helpful as that tends to be information that is more factual and not based on fear or anxiety. Reading things on social media or from individuals may, unfortunately, feed into the fear based thinking.
Once you identify you are in that loop and dealing with anxiety based on unrealistic fears, some things that you can do include:
-Increase your focus on a self-care and hygiene routine. Eating nutritious food, drinking water, REST (a major determiner of health), getting your body moving, washing your hands before eating and after being out in public places, not interacting with someone else’s bodily fluids (minimizing handshakes, hugging, kissing), and having FUN are all helpful in shifting the focus to health
-Start to ask yourself what you are really afraid of? Health anxiety is often a clue to underlying feelings and fears that have not been explored, for example, worrying about being alone, being powerless/feeling helpless, lack of acceptance for the natural life cycle, high levels of control, and/or perfectionism are all common issues that sit below the health anxiety. These issues often do not get attended to because it is easy to get distracted by the immediate focus or concern. Engaging in self-reflection, process groups, journaling, professional therapy, and emotional exploration and development are all helpful to support you in getting to the root of the problem rather than getting lost in the symptom
-Appreciate that health anxiety is a symptom of bigger issues. Feeding into it with online research, rumination, discussion with others, watching news, engaging in hoarding or preparation beyond what is reasonable are all behaviours that you may need to explore boundaries and disengagement with in order to support mental health. Once these boundaries have been established, however, that is a great time to start to explore what is really going on. The above bullet point has some key areas you may want to start delving into to provide clarity on those bigger issues.
As individuals we have a responsibility to look after ourselves as best we can. Do what you are able to for hygiene, sleep hygiene, and holistic self-care. If these do not provide some alleviation of your fears and anxiety, some additional support is likely required to look at the underlying root of this fear.
Be safe. Be open. Be healthy.
By Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist and Author
Paige Abbott is the Owner and Founder of Sana Psychological and helps people get unstuck from the worries, behaviours, or relationships that are holding them back. Addiction and mental health counselling are offered. She is currently accepting new clients in the Alberta area. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to request an appointment.