How to Help Someone with Health Anxiety
Supporting a loved one challenged by health anxiety can be an overwhelming experience for family members, spouses, partners and friends - especially if you don't have a plan.
If you’re supporting someone with health anxiety, ever thought to yourself...?
“Why won’t (s)he just snap out of it?” 😕
“Why won’t (s)he believe me that they have nothing to worry about?” 😬
“I’m so frustrated - we’ve been over this a hundred times!” 😡
While you mustn’t change who YOU are (they love you the way you are), there are many ways you can help and support someone with health anxiety to create positive change in their life (and yours).
The Best Ways to Support Someone with Health Anxiety (or Hypochondria)
Here's my best suggestions for helping a partner or loved one challenged by health anxiety, while making it a positive (nearly frustration-free) experience for everyone involved.
Many times, your presence alone is enough.
When you sense your loved one needs your support:
- Stop doing whatever you’re doing, if possible (if not, commit to a time when you can join them).
- Remove distractions. Turn off the TV, mute or switch off your iPhone.
- Do something they want to do. If they want to talk, talk. If they want to go for a walk, go for a walk. If they want to watch their favourite movie, watch. Just be there, without distractions or strings attached.
- Listen to everything they’re saying, and more importantly, what they’re feeling. Ask questions, and repeat back what you understand. This can be challenging at times because people challenged by health anxiety (or any anxiety disorder) often have many (negative) thoughts racing through their minds - so be patient, and present.
- Allow and validate their feelings (emotions, not symptoms), whatever they are, without any judgment and without trying to “fix” anything.
- Express your trust in them that they’ll find the solution, and with loving kindness, express that you’ll be with them every step of the way.
Beware the reassurance trap
Repeatedly reassuring someone challenged by health anxiety is a valley of despair that only leads to two outcomes:
- It frustrates you. 😬
- It feeds the anxiety. 🐻
- With loving kindness, remind them that you’re not qualified to respond because you’re not their doctor - and just like they can’t predict the future, neither can you. [Blank stare]
- Ask them how they think their doctor would respond to whatever discomfort they’re feeling. [Rationally]
- Remind them about when they were fearful of a symptom in the past - did their worst fears turn out to be true? Have they ever? [No]
- Ask whether worrying about this is the most worthwhile use of their energy right now, at this moment? [No]
- Ask what IS the most worthwhile use of their energy right now, at this moment. Encourage them to follow through, and ask how you can help.
When they come up with the correct answers on their own, they’re far more likely to respond in a positive manner.
Educate yourself (or better, learn together)
Understanding what health anxiety is, and what supports and suppresses recovery, takes time and effort - but it pays off in the end.
It demonstrates to your loved one that you care, and that they have your support.
The more you learn, the more positive action you can take, the more mistakes or traps you can avoid, and the more you can hold your loved one accountable.
Plus, you’ll discover anxiety-reduction strategies you can apply to your own life… talk about a win-win!
Don't get me wrong: They, not you - are responsible for their recovery… so they, not you, need to become the expert when it comes to their challenges and how to overcome them. Be sure to positively reinforce their education by asking them what helpful information they’ve learned, and how they’re applying it.
Some powerful anxiety-reduction practices are well-suited to being done together:
- Meditation or breathing exercises.
- Eating a healthy diet.
- Leisure activities.
- Applying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) strategies to shared experiences in everyday life.
Having an accountability partner helps everyone involved, and you’ll discover new opportunities to grow and improve your lives together - strengthening your relationship.
Not every strategy can be done together, though. There may be exercise routines you can’t (or don’t want to) do, foods you can’t (or don’t want to) add, reduce or eliminate or leisure activities you don’t enjoy. That’s fine!
What’s important is that you make space for individual action, without protest or judgment - and make it a win-win! After all, a healthier, more mindful loved one benefits you, too, right?
- If they need time for exercise, journaling, leisure or meditation, allow it with loving kindness, and use the time for something worthwhile for you, too.
- Incorporate foods rich in anti-anxiety nutrients into your diet. If one of your favourite recipes includes an ingredient they’re avoiding, explore substitutes together, set aside a portion before you add it, or enjoy it as-is (an occasional indulgence doesn't negate the massive progress you've made together).
- If in doubt, talk with them about how you can make sure both your needs are met! My wife recently shared how much she appreciates help getting the boys ready for school, so I go to a 6am yoga class whenever possible (while everyone's still sound asleep).
Beware of comparing or labelling
Resist the temptation to compare their thoughts, feelings, fears or challenges to anyone else’s - including your own. Doing so won't improve your life - but it will trivialize their experience and make them feel unsupported.
Although many people challenged by health anxiety are aware they’re being irrational, don’t label their thoughts, feelings, fears or challenges as such (by calling them crazy, dumb, ridiculous, silly or stupid). Let them come to these conclusions on their own. 😉
When your loved one demonstrates progress, big or small, it’s important to positively reinforce new, positive behaviours (or the cessation of old, anxious behaviours) from time-to-time.
- Verbally recognize their progress, telling them specifically what they did well. Often times, verbal recognition from a loved one (like you) is enough! 🙌🏼
- If you like, reward them further. 🎁 Keep rewards spontaneous and ensure there’s some variety - including some rewards you can enjoy together. For example:
- Give a spontaneous hug.
- Prepare one of their favourite recipes.
- Write them a card.
- Buy them flowers.
- Treat them to breakfast or coffee.
- Order something from their Amazon Wish List.
- Anything that feels right to you!
Be calm and patient
Your loved one with health anxiety is looking to you for calm and stability:
- Avoid validating their fearful thoughts (for example, don’t suggest “just in case, you should prepare a will” - wait until after recovery when they’re thinking more rationally).
- Avoid anger, passive-aggressiveness and creating (or adding to) stressful situations (for example, assigning blame, escalating arguments or guilt-tripping).
- Avoid raising the topic of symptoms or anxiety - this takes them back to their old, anxious self. Instead, raise topics that encourage positive change. When they bring up their symptoms or anxiety (believe me, they will), refer to the sections on “holding space” and "reassurance" above.
Expect overcoming health anxiety to take time, and setbacks to occur. Remain the positive voice of reason, and try to have fun as you work through them together.
The suggestions above are based on my experience, and what I’ve observed from others - but every person challenged by health anxiety has a unique experience, and individual needs.
When in doubt, ask your loved one what you can do to best help them overcome health anxiety.
💬 Talk to your loved one about how you can help them overcome health anxiety.
✏️ Recommend they take this 90-second health anxiety (hypochondria) quiz to determine what stage they’re at in their recovery, and find out their next steps to overcoming health anxiety.
🙏🏼 Share this post - it may help someone you know overcome health anxiety.
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