In the past two years, we have been bombarded with news about infected people, vaccines, side effects, and the short and long term effects of the Virus. We tried to move on with our life under a constant threat not only to our jobs, hobbies and way of living but also to our physical and mental health. What was the effect of all this?
The term hypochondria or health anxiety, refers to someone who is afflicted by a constant worry about health even when they have no real reason to be worried. Health anxiety can also include obsessive rituals in order to feel safe, panic attacks or other mental health conditions. It comes in a spectrum with any of the above symptoms experienced to a greater or lesser extent.
A key characteristic of health anxiety are rituals that keep you focused on your worries and reinforce anxiety. An excessive fear of germs and viruses, wearing masks, washing your hands frequently, taking your temperature, googling symptoms and over analysing changes in your body such as congestion or headaches are all examples of these safety rituals. This makes it hard to distinguish between the excessive concern and safety rituals of health anxiety and appropriate attempts to keep yourself healthy during a pandemic.
The link between Covid and health anxiety
A study published in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy (April 2021) suggested that this pandemic was more problematic for people prone to health anxiety as this was a highly transmissible and potentially fatal virus where health authorities like CDC recommended to monitor yourself for symptoms, sanitise your hands and surfaces and upturn your daily routines to keep yourself and others safe. This is the opposite of what mental health professionals had encouraged people with health anxiety and OCD to do before the pandemic. In addition, being completely homebound meant there was much more space for rumination and catastrophic thinking. On top of this there was the tsunami of news and mis/information all over the media which made it almost impossible to escape the distress caused by this situation.
Curbing anxiety from taking over
As we become aware that the pandemic has worsened our anxieties, experts suggest limiting the time we spend seeing news about the pandemic and diverting our focus on what we love doing. Seeking medical attention if we notice symptoms that worry us, might also help us stop from ruminating.
If you have been reassured by a doctor and still find yourself worrying not only about potential symptoms but also about vaccines, side effects and other issues related to health, it might be time to seek the support of a mental health professional. Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy can be particularly helpful for those suffering from health anxiety as it helps the client focus on facing fear and uncertainty in a safe and controlled environment.
While it is tempting to wait until the pandemic subsides and anxiety settles, it is likely the psychological effects of this pandemic will linger to some extent, so learning to manage these symptoms and the unknown might be a life changing step towards wellbeing.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Sonya Galea is a family therapist with Willingness Team. She works with families and couples experiencing couple relationship issues and parenting struggles.
Coslett R. L. (2020) If coronavirus scares you, read this to take control over your health anxiety Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/16/coronavirus-health-anxiety
Dennis D., Radnitz C., & Wheaton M.(2021) A Perfect Storm? Health Anxiety, Contamination Fears, and Covid-19: Lessons Learned from Past Pandemics and Current Challenges. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41811-021-00109-7
Gueren, C. (2021) Health Anxiety is Real-And Covid-19 Pandemic is making it worse for some people. Retrieved from https://www.health.com/condition/mental-health-conditions/health-anxiety-covid-pandemic
Jungmann S.M., & Witthoft M. (2020) Health anxiety, cyberchondria, and coping in the current Covid-19 pandemic: Which factors are related to coronavirus anxiety? Journal of Anxiety Disorders Retrieved from doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102239