A recent health scare reminded me how frightening it can be when your body lets you down. Not only does it feel scary when your heart’s racing, you can’t breathe and you might faint, being sick also makes you worry. What’s wrong with me? Is there something doctors can do to stop this? Will I be ok?
Advice about dealing with anxiety often reminds us that 90% of our worries will never become reality. One well-known exercise from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy makes you challenge your thoughts: Is what you’re thinking accurate and true? Could there be another way of looking at this?
This is a helpful technique when you’re afraid of spiders and speaking in public. But what if your fears are legit? What if you’re faced with an incurable disease, scary symptoms and an uncertain future?
It’s perfectly normal to have health-related anxiety. Who wouldn’t be stressed when your life’s turned upside down and you don’t know if things will ever be normal again? And of course you’re scared when you suddenly experience debilitating side-effects from the meds that are supposed to help you. You’re only human.
No matter if you’re worried about the gloomy perspective of your progressive illness or you’re afraid of needles, take a look at these 7 psychological strategies to deal with health-related anxiety.
1. Assess your need for information
Knowledge is power. When you get diagnosed with a serious disease, it’s important to get informed about your symptoms, the course of illness and effective treatment options.
But sometimes, you might learn more than you can handle. Especially when you start Googling symptoms and stories from other patients, you could feel overwhelmed and anxious. The internet is full of scary and unreliable information, so make sure you get your details from trustworthy sources.
In short, be mindful about how much information about your health you want and need, and when. You may be more comfortable digesting pieces of advice as you learn to live with your illness, instead of looking too far ahead. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Take things one step at a time
No one knows what the future will bring. Your health especially is a constantly changing process, with inevitable ups and downs. As hard as it is, don’t lose yourself in “What if..” scenarios. You may feel like you’re trying to get a grip on the situation, but it’s all too easy for your thoughts to spin out of control and trigger even more anxiety.
Even if the medical world has a likely timeline or prognosis for your illness, remember that every body is unique. You might not experience all the symptoms linked to your disease, or things progress faster or slower than anticipated.
That’s why you shouldn’t look too far ahead into the future. You might get worried about things that never happen. What’s more, your mind can’t grasp what it will be like to, for example, be in a wheelchair when you’re still active. But when your mobility gradually reduces, you might feel different about using a power chair than you’d imagined.
So take things one step at a time to prevent health-related anxiety.
3. ‘Accept, Choose, Take Action’
Living with both chronic illness and health-related anxiety requires you to be psychologically flexible – meaning you’re fully present while adapting to changing situations and balancing conflicting needs.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) builds your psychological flexibility, by encouraging you to face your fears head-on instead of running away from them. This mindfulness-based therapy focuses on 3 areas: acceptance, choosing your direction and taking action.
As positivepsychology.com eloquently puts it, “acceptance is the active choice to allow unpleasant experiences to exist, without trying to deny or change them.” By accepting your reality, you can work with what you have and make the most of the given situation. Once you’ve chosen your direction, you can take action towards a solution.
To learn more about how to put these techniques into practice, check out The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety by John Forsyth and George Eifert (affiliate link).
4. Strengthen your resilience
Resilience is your ability to bounce back from adversity. It’s one of the most important skills in life, and thankfully, something we can train.
Building resilience starts with taking good care of yourself. Not just by looking after your body but also by practicing self-compassion. Pay attention to your emotional needs and be kind to yourself instead of overly critical. Also nurture your relationships. Having family and friends who support you helps you cope better with tough times and promotes your mental health.
Next, try to reframe your problem. You may not able to change the situation you’re in, but you can change how you interpret and respond to the situation. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be realistic (or sad!) about what you’re facing. But once the initial emotions have passed, you could try to give a more helpful meaning to what’s happening. For example, going under surgery may be scary, but afterwards, you’ll hopefully feel healthier or have a better quality of life.
Finally, sharpen your problem-solving skills. Make a (mental) list of all the skills and resources you could use to deal with your problems in a constructive way.
All these resilience-building activities will grow your confidence in yourself. Because, even though it will not be easy, somehow you will be able to handle whatever life throws at you.
5. Learn how to stay calm in stressful situations
When you have health-related anxiety, how do you keep your calm during medical procedures or serious symptom flare-ups? Here are some ideas to deal with stressful situations:
- Discuss a coping plan with your treating physicians. Is there something that can be done to ease your anxiety or the pain you fear? Would you feel more comfortable if someone could hold your hand?
- Experiment with simple activities that relax your body and mind in a healthy way. Breathing exercises, like the 4-7-8 breathing technique, are natural tranquilizers and can be done anywhere anytime. A mindful body scan could also help you release tension, whereas healing mantras or calming visualizations turn your attention away from your fears.
- Distract yourself with positive activities. Your working memory has a limited capacity, so listening to soft music or reading an uplifting story literally takes your mind off unpleasant sensations.
- Don’t numb your emotions with alcohol, drugs or binge-eating. These addictive behaviors can make you feel better for a moment, but they won’t do you much good in the long run. Learn to deal with (recurring) stress in more constructive ways.
6. Keep hope in your heart
You probably never though your life would turn out like this. Being in agony every day, not knowing if you’ll ever feel ok again.
And maybe you won’t ever fully recover from your illness. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the natural healing process just doesn’t kick in.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make small improvements that significantly improve your quality of life. You might not ever get to be as fit as a healthy person your age, but you may achieve your own definition of recovery. And through these tiny health gains, you could make your dreams come true, even if it’s in a modified way.
So maintain a positive outlook and be actively involved in managing your health. Having hope in your heart will push your health-related anxiety aside, if only for a while.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for support
As isolating and lonely as illness can make you feel, you don’t have to go through this alone. A lot of the time, the people around you want to help, they just don’t know what to say or do. So tell your friends and family what you need. Having someone to hold your hand or just listen to your worries can mean the world when you’re going through tough times.
And if you can’t get what you need from your loved ones, find a local or online support group. It can be a sigh of relief when someone truly understands what you’re going through. If health-related anxiety has a big impact on your life, you could also consider counseling to help you cope better.
Do you suffer from health-related anxiety? What helps you deal with the worries, stress and fears?
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