Learn to cope with your health worries in a realistic way so they don’t take over your life

Health anxiety, or hypochondria, is estimated to affect 6% of our population – in fact, a recent study by the University of Nottingham estimates that excessive worrying over dreamt-up diseases is costing the NHS £3 billion a year in unnecessary costs. Trouble is, while there’s stigma around hypochondria and sufferers are often ridiculed, health anxiety sufferers are faced with a very real, crippling condition. Fearing for your life on a daily basis is a burden no one should have to endure, so tackle your worries head-on with these practical tips:

Scared child in bed
1. Learn to read your body

It’s easy to believe you have a life-threatening condition if the symptoms are there – chest pains can mean heart attacks or pulmonary embolisms, and unusual headaches can leave us wondering about brain tumours and other sinister diagnoses. Anxiety, frustratingly, can manifest itself in these and a variety of other physical side-effects that lead to even further worry. Shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, a persistent light-headedness, and even vomiting and nausea, can all be linked to worry and stress. Try to get to know your body so you can understand how your anxiety presents itself physically.

2. Limit your research

Googling your symptoms when you’re overcome by worry is second nature, but it can also aggravate your anxiety. The internet is full of horror stories and worse case scenarios, so avoid unreliable sites. The NHS website gives clear and non-sensational advice on symptoms, though seeking face-to-face help is the best solution. Equally, if you find yourself triggered by dramatic health stories in the media, avoid reading exaggerated headlines.

Your symptoms may not be real, but your anxiety is. A good doctor will understand that and put your mind at ease
3. Occupy your mind

Keep busy and surround yourself with friends and family. Locking yourself away to worry will only worsen the panic and leave your mind open to negative thoughts (see page 24), so make plans you can look forward to. When you need time to yourself, exercise is a good way to clear your mind – running, yoga and swimming are great healers. If your health anxiety is stopping you leaving the house or going about your daily life, it’s time to seek help, whether you confide in someone you trust or a professional.

4. Consult your doctor

There’s no shame in speaking with a trusted GP. Your symptoms may not be real, but your anxiety is – a good doctor will understand that and help to put your mind at ease. If unnecessary trips to your local surgery are getting out of hand, you need to address that too – what’s causing these constant worries? Your doctor may be able to refer you to a counsellor who can offer cognitive behavioural therapy or coping techniques. Health anxiety can be tackled with the right support.

Old man listening to his own heartbeat
5. Improve your sleep

A good night’s sleep is one of the best healers for a stressed, overactive mind. Give yourself time to unwind by taking a relaxing bath, and avoid television and phones before bed. If you wake up panicking, get yourself up, take some deep breaths and go and get yourself a glass of water – try to take yourself out of the situation before it gets worse. For more science-backed ways to help you sleep, read our hack!