Health Anxiety can occur at any time. Let’s say your friend Peter has a tickle in his throat. He starts to clear it and as he is doing so, random thoughts run through his mind. Is this the start of the coronavirus? Am I one of the unlucky ones who will die from the virus? What will happen to my family?
Christine has a cough that happens on and off throughout the day. She starts to worry that she may be ill. She takes her temperature several times during the day. She has a pulse ox and does a check of her oxygen level multiple times during the day. She plans to schedule a doctor visit after having spoken to her doctor just the day before.
These thoughts are common and possibly you as the reader are having them. The increase in anxiety and worry is a normal response to highly stressful events. As your anxiety level increases, many components of your cognitive functioning decrease. Anxiety is one of the most effective causes of decreasing rational thought. When you feel afraid, stress and anxiety are known as cortisol and adrenaline race through your body, causing effects throughout your body as well on your brain chemistry.
A chronic high level of cortisol, the glucocorticoid in the human body, affects brain chemistry by causing the brain to have difficulty with reasoning and recall. The more chronic the high level of stress hormones, the more likely you are to end up with various health disorders. That’s right! The more you worry about being ill, the more likely you will become ill.
The chronic worry with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol is likely to make you ill. Chronic worry and stress about health issues are diagnosed as Illness Anxiety Disorder. It’s most common outcomes lead to difficulties with learning and impaired memory lowered immune function and bone density, and increased weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart disease. A chronic cortisol level leads to psychiatric disorders, as brain function degrades over time leading to Major Depression, Sleep Disorders, and Anxiety Disorders. Other health issues related to chronic stress and cortisol levels have links to diabetes, hypertension, and even Alzheimer’s.
When you worry every day if you have a disease, you are triggering the release of excess cortisol. You will feel more tense and tired at the same time. You will feel unable to achieve a deep rest at night. You will want to rest but won’t feel rested. Your mind will continue to race as your body feels exhausted and overworked.
These are the typical experiences of dealing with health anxiety during a pandemic. The reactions are “normal” in that they are average and typical. In contract, Illness Anxiety Disorder is a condition that many had before the pandemic began(approximately 7-10% of the population). People with this disorder mentally obsess about their health status to the point of having repeated doctor visits. This can go on for years without evidence that the person has a medical disorder. The worrying, stress, and mental preoccupation trigger physical symptoms. This person may experience gastrointestinal symptoms and/or headaches and muscle aches and pains. To the patient, these complaints are real. When their physician evaluates the anxious patient and finds no evidence to indicate a physical diagnosis, the likely result for the health anxious person is to believe that the physician simply missed the real diagnosis. The obsessional thoughts begin again.
The symptoms of the Illness Anxiety Disorder were present in some people before the pandemic. However, the pandemic has induced Illness Anxiety symptoms in persons who didn’t have it before the pandemic began. For all people, an anxiety response is normal in a threatening situation. The question for everyone, with or without Illness Anxiety Disorder is: will your current symptoms if allowed to persist, develop into a stress disorder? If they do, you run the risk of developing a real health disorder with long-term consequences. It has been proven many times over that those who live with chronic stress and anxiety have shorter lifespans.
Chances are that the coronavirus will not kill you. It is a disease that is currently estimated to lead to death in 1% of the people who contract it. On the other hand, the odds that your chronic and worry will lead to illness are much greater, at 77%. You can develop a physical disorder, such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke, gastrointestinal disorders, Alzheimer’s, and the list goes on. 1% vs 77 %!
There is a pandemic of chronic health disorders in this country. Youngsters are now developing diabetes when the disease in the past was a disease of middle and late age. Children are being diagnosed with hypertension. The odds of being diagnosed with dementia at a younger age are increasing over time.
If you are not ill, your worrying about being ill or becoming ill may make you ill. And, making you ill in a way that ultimately, if it persists, will not be reversible. Glucocorticoids raise your glucose levels. For this reason, there is a clear link between chronic stress and diabetes and alterations in brain chemistry. Higher levels of glucose will cause inflammation in the body and therefore interfere with the normal and healthy functioning of your immune system. Your chronic stress and worry will lead to more immune system dysfunction which will make you more vulnerable to coronavirus.
The question is what to do about it. The idea is to manage stress and decrease your anxiety level. There are several ways in which to achieve this goal. The best way to de-stress is to focus on your mental processes and to reverse the negative thoughts and obsessional thinking about all the bad stuff that might happen might happen to you. There are many good resources to practice relaxation and mindfulness. Ultimately it is up to you to change your focus and know that you can change how your mind works. You can choose to decrease your stress and anxiety or continue to allow them to endanger your health
One way to take good care of yourself is to participate in our weekly relaxation and mindfulness practice with our Program Director of Integrative Mind-Body Care, Anna Sandbank. You can sign up by clicking here. The first session is FREE! Offer expires June 22nd, 2020.
You can also participate in our Functional Medicine Program to mitigate health anxiety in which you can learn techniques to manage your thought processes, empower your ability to use your mind to relax, and use health-promoting resources to support your immune system and decrease the risk of actually becoming ill.
By Dr. Vanessa Gourdine, Director
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