Wash your hands. Disinfect that package. Wear two masks. Don't go into crowds. These wise messages for preventing the spread of COVID-19 are, unfortunately, fueling health anxiety, both in folks who were already a bit over-the-top or germ-phobic, and in those who never worried much about getting sick or encountering random germs. Add to that what one psychiatrist calls cyberchondria - the malign influence of fear-mongering about a wide variety of illnesses online and through social media - and you've got a lot of people feeling downright frightened about their health, even when they are perfectly well.
The irony, of course, is that health anxiety itself can make you sick long before you contract an actual infection or disease. The stress associated with it may interfere with sleep, weakening your immune defenses. Habits that reinforce hyper-cleanliness can kill off healthful bacteria that live on your skin, in your mouth and in your gut, increasing your risk for everything from depression to diabetes. Health anxiety even ups the risk of heart disease by around 70%, according to a 2016 Norwegian study. To top it off, obsessive anxiety about being sick keeps some folks from going to the doctor when they should (they want to avoid what they assume will be very bad news), making them more vulnerable when they're actually ill.
Signs that you may have health anxiety include:
- Obsessively looking up symptoms online.
- Frequent calls to your doctor for reassurance or appointments. That's the opposite of the avoidance behavior mentioned above; some docs say patients call six or more times a week.
- Fear of going outside, where you worry you'll bump into health risks even if you're careful.
- Frequent temperature checks.
- Compulsive hand-washing.
- Frequent checking of your ability to smell (since loss of it is one of the first signs of COVID-19).
- Worrying that you have a disease but have no symptoms of it.
- Persistently worrying that you are ill, even after your doctor gives you a clean bill of health.
- When you need treatment, uncertainty that the right treatment has been recommended. In one study of orthopedic patients, intense searching online for info about their condition fueled a sense of uncertainty about their doctor's proposed treatments, produced treatment-damaging health anxiety and reduced positive outcomes of treatment!
Ask yourself, "Do I assume the worst from any slight twitch, sensation or minor injury?" If the answer is, "Well, it could be the worst," you're a candidate for treatment to ease your anxiety and distress.
The best steps are to sign up for online or in person cognitive behavioral therapy. One study in The Lancet found that five to 10 sessions of CBT targeted at health anxiety was effective in easing symptoms, and the benefits lasted for the two years they tracked the participants. Another study in JMIR Mental Health found online treatment with seven sessions of clinician-supported acceptance and commitment therapy that used self-help texts, video clips, audio files and worksheets over 12 weeks was substantially effective in reducing health anxiety symptoms.
You can also use nature to help ease health anxiety. According to a study out of the University of Georgia, what the Japanese call "forest-bathing" helps dispel tension associated with the pandemic. Seems immersing yourself in nature for a while makes the complex components of the natural world (including germs and disease) seem less threatening.
Physical exercise also dispels stress and may ease some of your anxiety temporarily. Aerobic - and interval training - are the most effective. Break a sweat. Your best bet is to do 30 to 60 minutes five days a week, but anything is better than nothing!
So if you are one of the 12% to 24% of American adults contending with health anxiety, know that there is relief in sight - and that letting go of the worry will not increase your risk for contracting an infection or developing a serious condition.
Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. To live your healthiest, tune into "The Dr. Oz Show" or visit www.sharecare.com.
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.