You are scrolling away on TikTok or Instagram and suddenly come across a video of a young person sharing their story about how they were tragically diagnosed with cancer. It grips you. It is as if all of your fears are captured in one brief, random video. So, of course, you watch the whole thing. Maybe you even watch it a second time. And now the algorithm, with its clever and resourceful methods, knows your weakness. So you start seeing more and more videos about people with serious and/or terminal illnesses.
Before long, it seems like sickness and disease are everywhere, lurking behind every corner. You might even start "keeping an eye out" for symptoms that are similar to those described in some of these stories. You probably know these videos aren’t helping you. After all, you certainly don’t feel any less anxious after watching them. But let me tell you exactly why it isn’t helping you.
Your beliefs are strengthened by the information you pay attention to
People with health anxiety tend to hold dysfunctional beliefs about health and illness. One of these dysfunctional beliefs is the overestimation of threat. This is the assumption that diseases are more common and more severe than they are in reality, statistically speaking. For example, people who hold this belief might overestimate the likelihood that they will develop cancer or contract an infectious disease. They might also assume that, if they do develop or contract a disease, that disease will be more severe or deadly than is statistically likely.
I am not saying that people don’t develop and die from serious diseases; I am saying that your estimation is probably inaccurate.
And when you hold a belief about anything, that belief is strengthened through the process of reinforcement. You pay selective attention to the information in your environment that confirms your belief and ignore or dismiss the information that disconfirms this belief. You soak up all the tragic stories about sickness and dying on TikTok and you pay much less attention to the (more common) stories about healthy people and/or people who recover from an illness.
All of this only strengthens your belief that sickness and disease are everywhere. And then you become even more convinced that you are bound to get a serious or terminal disease (i.e. the overestimation of threat). Essentially, your fear of disease and dying gets worse.
You can improve this
Changing dysfunctional beliefs about health and illness takes time and concerted effort. But it is an attainable goal. You need to retrain your brain. This happens by being intentional about the information you pay attention to and how you process that information. Refrain from engaging in the tunnel vision thinking error in which you focus primarily on stories of sickness and death.
As a first step, stop spending time watching videos about people’s illnesses on TikTok and other social media platforms. Instead, try to notice all the stories and people in your life who are healthy. Also, pay attention to the many situations in which people overcome an illness or are coping well. And, lastly, if there are people in your life, who, unfortunately, are struggling with a serious disease, have a talk with yourself about the probability and severity of getting one of these diseases. Protect your mental health by being intentional about the information you take in.
If you want to take the next step to improve health anxiety, grab my free guide!