One day during your typical morning routine you notice what looks like a scab on the top of your hand. What is this? Well, there goes your morning. You suddenly aren’t that concerned about getting to work on time and you begin your careful inspection. You knew for certain you hadn’t scraped your hand at any point. Why else would you have a scab? Suddenly, the new diagnosis hits you. Skin cancer.
You can’t believe it’s finally happening. You had known for years you were doomed to eventually develop some type of melanoma. After all, as a youth, you spent most summers slathered in baby oil and frying yourself to a crisp.
Over time, the scab faded. But you notice a new symptom: upper back pain. Uh oh. So and so’s cousin’s first symptom of lung cancer was back pain. So, naturally, you throw yourself down yet another rabbit hole. And round and round it goes. You have barely moved on from skin cancer, and are already embracing a new imminent tragedy.
Of course, you didn’t end up having skin cancer. Nor did you end up having lung cancer. As usual, those seemingly catastrophic symptoms just sort of went away. But until they do, you are convinced that this is “it.”
What’s happening behind the curtain
This cycle isn’t anything new to you. If you have health anxiety, I am sure you are well aware of this pattern and your tendency to overreact to symptoms and bodily sensations. But you may not be aware that there is something profound happening underneath all of this.
Many people with health anxiety hold the core belief that they are weak and vulnerable to disease. It is as if you assume that any illness that comes your way, big or small, would be the thing that puts you straight into the grave. Core beliefs are the lens through which we see ourselves and the world around us. They influence how we interpret everything. If you believe you are weak and vulnerable to disease then, naturally, you are going to be terrified of all symptoms or bodily sensations because, if it is due to a serious disease, then you assume you are finished. It’s "game over."
Reshaping this core belief into a new, more adaptive belief
Let’s consider a new way of seeing your health. It is possible that you are underestimating your ability to overcome, manage or cope with an illness. Even if you were to get diagnosed (or have been diagnosed) with an illness, there are many reasons to assume that, in most cases, the illness would be treatable. For example, let’s say you are diagnosed with high blood pressure. This does not automatically mean you are going to die of a stroke or heart attack. Yes, of course, high blood pressure can increase one’s risk for a heart attack or stroke. But with changes in lifestyle and access to medical resources, this condition is manageable. In fact, thanks to science and the progression of modern medicine, there are a wide variety of options for treating the majority of health conditions.
I have seen many of my clients’ health anxiety improve drastically when they learn how to use cognitive restructuring to reshape their unhelpful beliefs (i.e., "I am weak and vulnerable to disease"). They learn how to identify what they once thought was "evidence" for this belief. They then begin to collect evidence for a healthier belief (i.e., "My body is strong and capable of overcoming most illnesses"). Through this process, they begin to slowly shed the old belief and form a new one.
Strengthening your new belief
What’s more, once the new, healthier belief is formed, it only becomes stronger over time. This is because our core beliefs, whether adaptive or maladaptive, continue to be strengthened through a process of reinforcement. Even though we often don’t realize it, we are selectively paying attention to the data in our environment that confirms the beliefs we already have.
This way of processing information can work for us or against us. Up until now, this process has been working against you when it comes to your beliefs about health. You have been searching for ‘evidence’ in your environment that you are weak and vulnerable to disease. It is time to retrain your brain to search for evidence for you being strong and capable of overcoming most illnesses.
The more you practice training your brain to notice this information in your environment on a daily basis, the easier it will become for you to begin processing information in this new way. You will begin to naturally notice evidence of you being strong and capable of managing or overcoming disease. Retraining your brain requires a lot of effort upfront but becomes much easier over time. It is well worth the effort.
If you want to take the first step toward improving health anxiety, get my free guide on how to improve health anxiety with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).