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How do You Interpret Symptoms and Bodily Sensations? Learn How Not to Catastrophize.

How do You Interpret Symptoms and Bodily Sensations? Learn How Not to Catastrophize.

You are just hanging out, minding your own business and suddenly your finger starts twitching. UGH. There goes your evening. You start thinking of all the potential causes. Maybe you mentally review how often you have had twitches in the past week. Maybe you head down the ol' google rabbit hole. Maybe you asked your spouse what they think. Regardless, that show you were looking forward to watching all day has lost its luster. Your night is ruined. I think we all know this routine.

Before we dive in, if you want to take the first step toward improving your health anxiety, grab my free guide! 

Improve Health Anxiety with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

What is happening here?

Somewhere along the journey of life, we health-anxious folk have decided that, generally speaking, symptoms are a sign that something is seriously wrong with our health. Yes, obviously sometimes symptoms are, in fact, a sign of a serious disease. But as our health anxiety grows, over time we begin to assume that most or all symptoms are a sign of a serious disease. And if every ache, pain, lump and mole is the beginning of the end, of course every symptom would be terrifying. It is a logical response to what is believed to be a serious threat.

The root of the problem is not the response to symptoms (although these safety behaviors will certainly increase your anxiety over time). No, the real issue here is that your brain has coded all bodily symptoms and sensations as a serious threat. Even when your body is just being a "body" and making noise due to routine biological processes or minor issues, your mind is screaming, "Danger, Danger, Danger!" 

Below are some common internal health anxiety triggers. Do any of these resonate with you? Are there other symptoms that aren't on this list that make you afraid? Share with me! For me personally, shortness of breath, twitching and forgetfulness were huge triggers. Note that this isn't an exhaustive list but just common triggers I have experienced or seen. 

Examples of bodily sensations/symptoms or internal health anxiety triggers 

  • Chest tightness, pain & heart palpitations

  • Lumps and bumps

  • Moles and rashes

  • Dizziness, light headedness, faintness 

  • Headaches

  • Forgetfulness, inattention and difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling shaky or trembling

  • Twitching

  • Restlessness, tension or agitation

  • Breathlessness, smothering sensation or irregular breathing

  • Nausea or abdominal cramps 

It can be helpful to be familiar with your triggers so that when you experience these sensations or symptoms, you can recognize your pattern to catastrophize and assume the worst-case scenario when these symptoms emerge.  

Body noise 

You've probably heard me say it before- our bodies are "noisy." This is because they are in a constant state of flux. There is always activity in our bodies and our bodies are constantly changing. Common reasons our bodies are noisy:

  1. Homeostasis: the process by which the body reacts to changes in the environment in order to maintain its internal balances.

  2. Shifts in daily routine: changes in our diet, sleep patterns, physical activity, sleep 

  3. Mind-body connection: emotional reactions, including anxiety and the fight or flight response. In addition, many other emotions can activate the body's sympathetic nervous system and release adrenaline.

  4. Minor or benign medical conditions: colds, allergic reactions or infections, for example, can all cause multiple reactions in our body (e.g. heartburn, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, rashes, etc.). 

My homework for you

The next time you notice an internal trigger or symptom and begin to head down that rabbit hole, pause for a moment. Identify the symptom and recognize if it is one of your triggers. Then, consider a few questions:

  • Am I jumping to conclusions based on a small amount of evidence?

  • Am I catastrophizing?

  • What are some possible benign or non-catastrophic explanations for this symptom?

  • Could this symptom be due to some type of body noise? 

  • How often have my predictions been wrong in the past?

  • What would I say to a friend if they had this symptom?

  • What is the evidence for me having X disease? How valid is this evidence (any thinking errors/biased assumptions)?

  • What is the evidence against me having X disease?

  • What is the impact of me assuming every symptom is due to a serious disease? What could be the impact of me changing this thinking?

A final comment...

Obviously some symptoms do need to get checked out, especially if they persist. This isn't to say don't ever go to the doctor!

The goal here is to try not to immediately assume it is the worst-case scenario. What I would love for you more than anything is for you to be able to notice a new sensation or symptom and still feel calm because:

  • you assume that it is most likely not due to a serious disease

  • you assume that, if you go to the doctor and learn that it is something serious, you will be able to cope with it and will take the necessary steps to address it

It really is possible to get to this place. I know this, not only because of the research showing health anxiety is treatable, but because I have seen it anecdotally with myself and my clients. 

Sure, I still get anxious from time to time. But I don't go down that rabbit hole. I am able to experience a symptom and feel, more or less, at peace. Because I assume that it's probably nothing and, even if it is something, well, I'll deal with it. 

If you want to take the next step toward improving your health anxiety, grab my free guide! 

Improve Health Anxiety with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT


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