You are brushing your hair and you suddenly notice a little bump on the back of your head. It seems to have come out of nowhere. What is this? Ugh. You feel both anxiety and frustration. You were just at the doctor’s last week for something else. And now this. Annoyed at the inconvenience, you pull out your phone to make another appointment.
But, what if you put off making that appointment? Just for a little bit.
I know what you’re thinking. If you don’t go to the doctor right away, it could be something serious that gets worse. If you wait, whatever illness is causing this bump could get worse. By the time you go, it could be too late. Game over.
This is the thought we want to target: "If I don’t go to the doctor at the first sign of illness, I will get really sick or die."
With health anxiety, we tend to have all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to our health. We assume that, in order to be healthy, we need to be symptom-free at all times. By this logic, any symptom or bodily sensation is automatically a sign of a potentially serious health problem. But this is inaccurate. Our bodies are "noisy." This means that, on an ongoing basis, we have symptoms that are not due to serious disease. Instead, these symptoms are due to normal self-regulatory processes, diet, emotional or physiological arousal (e.g. anxiety), and minor or benign medical conditions. Body noise is a real thing.
I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it. I’d want you to see for yourself whether this new symptom is a serious disease or simply body noise. After all, how many times in the past have you been convinced a symptom was a sign of a serious disease, only to eventually realize it was nothing?
Let’s design an experiment.
If you were my client and you came to me concerned about this bump on your head, I might ask you to postpone going to the doctor or asking loved ones about the bump on your head for three days.
Before doing the experiment, I would ask you: What do you predict will happen?
You might have a couple of predictions:
- Prediction 1: Maybe this symptom is something serious and it will be deadly if I don’t address it right away.
- Prediction 2: If I have to wait three days to go to the doctor, the anxiety will be too overwhelming for me to handle.
It is important that you consider what you predict or expect to happen. These predictions are what we will be testing. The goal is to help you learn, through experience, that many of your predictions are inaccurate. This is because your health anxiety leads you to see the threat of serious disease as being more likely, and more severe, than it actually is.