The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a new health threat in the form of a disease about which little is known about, is difficult to treat, and can cause serious damage to our bodies. The health implications of this virus have sparked fear, worry, and (for some) clinical levels of anxiety across the globe.
Psychologically, a certain amount of anxiety can healthy and even helpful to people. However, too much anxiety can also be harmful both mentally and physically. Compounding matters, symptoms produced by anxiety — which can include muscle pain, chest pain, heart rate changes, headaches, and dizziness — may mimic some symptoms of COVID-19 and heighten an individual’s concern about their health.
Health anxiety, also referred to as hypochondria or illness anxiety, is having excessive worry about having an illness or one’s own physical health. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only 37% of people with anxiety disorders receive treatment. The prevalence of health anxiety is difficult to calculate but is thought to affect somewhere from 4-12% of the population.
After a year where anxiety about health was front and center for many due to an unprecedented pandemic, how do we help distinguish when our anxiety is too much? Here are six signs that your health anxiety might be too much.
One sign that you may have developed health anxiety during the pandemic is if you are spending an excessive amount of time reviewing the research supporting COVID-19 health recommendations. This kind of behavior may develop due to unresolved anxiety from the onset of lockdown, where guidance was changing very quickly and there was significant uncertainty over what the future held. Consider finding one genuine professional resource to refer to for guidance updates and make those checks much less frequent to help cut down on time spent on the internet.
One of the major sources of health-related anxiety during the COVID pandemic has been the protection of loved ones. This can lead to prolonged isolation, which research shows is not helpful or healthy for our minds. It is important to continue to seek safe, reasonable ways to connect with loved ones, rather than eliminating contact altogether. If we continue to exercise the recommended precautions — continued mask use, social distancing, and good hygiene — we can participate in some much-needed socialization and reduce the negative impacts of long-term isolation.
Health-related anxiety often manifests through the over-absorption of information on the internet. While everyone wants to turn to the internet for medical guidance and advice, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Through certain channels on the internet, you can access misinformation or other data that has not been peer-reviewed or based on scientific facts. If you have concerns about your health, it is important to have a dialogue with your physician and develop the trust to find the treatment approach that suits your needs.
While virtual platforms were critical for much of the pandemic to allow for safe learning and working environments for our communities, we are reaching a phase in the pandemic where restrictions can be reasonably and safely relaxed with certain precautions in mind. Some parents may be struggling with whether or not to allow their children to return to in-school learning, which is a very personal choice to make. However, if you can assess your individual situation and determine what precautions are in place — vaccination restrictions, social distancing, mask-wearing, temperature checks, etc. — it can help ease that anxiety and allow children to return to the social environment they critically need.
Many may still be struggling with returning to post-lockdown, but when you are constantly canceling plans due to anxiety over COVID or COVID-related symptoms, it may signal a broader issue. Frontline healthcare workers and other healthcare providers who have been vaccinated can safely visit with unvaccinated patients in person, so it is important not to let the pandemic prohibit your access to mental health support. Likewise, virtual services continue to be available, so one way to combat this type of anxiety is to balance in-person environments with virtual, when appropriate. Although it is a change from what we experienced throughout the last year, we are reaching a place that should be taken advantage of if possible.
Many individuals suffering from chronic medical symptoms that predated COVID-19 — seasonal allergies, asthma, premenstrual symptoms, etc. — have difficulty distinguishing those symptoms from those indicative of COVID. An upset stomach, scratchy throat, red eyes, or runny nose can occur at any time but do not mean you have COVID. There are also underlying medical conditions that predate COVID that may be similar to COVID, like intensified fatigue. If you typically deal with a chronic condition but are concerned about your well-being, the best thing to do is consult your primary care doctor.
As we begin to see the light at the end of this tunnel for the current pandemic, it is important to check in with ourselves regarding our experience over the past year. If these signs resonate with your personal experience, then it would be a good time to reach out to a professional (even if that professional is your physician). Common treatment options for health anxiety include medications and psychotherapy to help you manage and move past your worries. We have all missed out on so many things in the past year, don’t let worry or anxiety control your ability to live a happy and balanced life.
Note: This content, written by Samantha Desmond, and Robyn Dotson-Martin, MS, LPC-S, originally appeared on Mind Matters from Menninger, our blog on Psychology Today.