Health anxiety is described as when an individual spends too much time worrying:
- That they are ill
- That they could be getting ill
Whilst a certain level of concern is completely normal if we have symptoms of illness, health anxiety can begin to take over life. Health anxiety is often obsessive and irrational and individuals who experience it can misinterpret normal sensations in the body as being indicators of serious illness.
What causes health anxiety?
The actual cause of health anxiety is not well understood. However, the concept of anxiety is created when our body perceives a stress or challenge. In this situation, our body releases a hormone called adrenaline which creates the ‘fight – flight –freeze – faint’ response in the body. This creates a number of physical and emotional feelings in the body which warn us that there may be a potential threat of danger or risk.
However, in health anxiety, a person is responding to the natural sensations that occur in their bodies, so whilst there may not be an actual threat their body sends out the same reactions. This can create worries for children which range from:
- Mild– minimal impact on their world
- Moderate– may prevent some activities or interactions
- Chronic– having a far-reaching effect on opportunities and interactions
In health anxiety, some life factors can contribute to the development of symptoms, such as:
- A poor understanding of body sensations
- Family members with excessive worries
- Previous experience of serious illness
- A previous ‘missed’ or misdiagnosed illness
There are also some risk factors which may contribute to health anxiety:
- Personal serious illness
- Previous abuse or neglect
- Parent with serious illness
- A worrying or sensitive personality
Signs that indicate health anxiety:
Some signs that a child may have health anxiety include:
- Constant worry about their health
- Preoccupied with the functions of their body
- Concerns about sensations in their body e.g. headaches
- Checking their bodies for signs of illness e.g. temperatures, abnormalities, lumps, pain
- Constantly asking questions or requiring reassurance that they are or are not ill
- Wanting / needing to visit the doctor to identify if there is something wrong with them
- Thinking or talking about illness or potential illness constantly
- Not being at peace, even if a doctor says nothing is wrong
- Researching medical conditions or symptoms
- Restricting their world as the thought of illness takes over everything
Wider signs of anxiety
Alongside the signs that are indicative of health anxiety, children may also experience typical signs of anxiety, which are created from the stress of their health worries:
- Complaining of tummy aches
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Complaining of headaches
- Feeling nauseous
- Complaining of racing heart
- Breathing is fast
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fixating on a worry
- Needing constant or frequent reassurance
- Avoiding events or situations due to preoccupation or worry about their health
- Becoming tearful or fretful
- Needing constant reassurance from a trusted adult
5 steps to supporting worries
- Seek medical treatment – Health anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder, if a child’s health anxiety symptoms are ongoing and not reducing, seeking medical support for therapeutic help )and sometimes medication) can help the child manage their anxiety.
- Learn about health anxiety – education is powerful. Educating yourself about health anxiety is an important part of supporting a child with the anxiety. The more we understand, the easier it is to empathise and be compassionate with a child’s anxieties and therefore work with them to access support.
- Validate don’t criticise –whilst it can feel that a child’s worries are extreme and unfathomable, to them they are real and very scary. Validating their worries and accepting that to them they are, at time, debilitating is the first step to supporting them. This may be through spending a short period of time together writing their worries down so that you can make a plan for them or look at them from a different perspective. This also supports children to look at the worry in black and white (without their imagination helping) so they can talk about it from a new angle.
- Develop problem solving skills –helping children to develop their problem-solving skills can support them to rationalise their anxiety. Simply saying ‘yes I know it worries you’ does not help them move through the worry. You can consider questions such as 1) what evidence is there that this is true? 2) what else might it mean? 3) how else could we look at this? 4) what is the possibility of it happening? 5) what is the most likely outcome? 6) is there a more positive way we can look at this thought? 7) what would you suggest to a friend with this worry? 8) could we turn it into something positive?
- Get moving –exercise releases endorphins in the body which feel good and reduce stress. Using our body and mind with purpose can also reduce our worries and improve our well-being. Regular exercise and daily activity therefore are vital to supporting children’s physical and emotional health.
When do we need wider help?
If worries are not shifting, have been occurring for a longer period of time (more than a few weeks) or are increasing in their intensity you should seek medical advice.
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