Managing Health Anxiety in the midst of Coronavirus
Haley Rottenberg, Psy.D.| Staff Psychologist
With all of the news about flu season and coronavirus, it is easy to get swept up by fears of illness. Many people are cancelling travel, scheduling extra medical appointments, and wearing face masks to avoid catching the flu or coronavirus. While these behaviors can be helpful for some of us, they can also lead to becoming too fixated on health. Often, our health anxiety can convince us that we have a deadly disease or that we are more likely to catch an illness than statistics show. As a result, we may reduce our engagement in daily activities such as going to the gym or attending social events in fear of catching an illness. But, reducing the frequency of exercise and avoiding social gatherings and can negatively impact our quality of life.
There are multiple ways that health anxiety can present. One way is that we have increased urges to schedule medical appointments and do extensive research on our symptoms, trying to self-diagnose using various websites. Another way is that we may avoid checking in on our health altogether and avoid annual physicals or other medical appointments. Neither extreme is helpful because the first teaches us that the only way to overcome our worry is to seek reassurance that we are healthy, and the second increases the likelihood that we will continue to avoid.
If we are fixated on illness, we may become increasingly aware of our physiological responses. This means that we may be more likely to notice the start of a headache or worry that any sniffle or pain may be the sign that an illness like coronavirus is brewing. This increased worry actually increases the likelihood of additional symptoms. Anxiety can lead to shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, or sweating, many of which are also symptoms of coronavirus or the flu.
While we cannot guarantee that managing anxiety will prevent illness, it will reduce the likelihood of placing additional stress on our bodies and mind by worrying. Ultimately, our goal is to make smart decisions about what is best for us. This means scheduling and attending medical appointments based on your personal health needs, avoiding researching symptoms and illnesses, and taking precautions like washing your hands more often until this season passes.