Thursday 21 May 2020

Worried Sick: Top Tips for Coping with Health Anxiety

Caroline shares her advice for navigating health anxiety in light of COVID-19
- Caroline

Health anxiety is scary. It’s an all-consuming preoccupation with even the most minor of physical ailments, and it creeps its way into every single aspect of your life. Between bouts of obsessive checking and grim acceptance of impending doom, it’s easy to find yourself leaping wildly from one worst-case scenario to the next. Add a worldwide pandemic to the mix and life becomes a perfect storm. These may be unprecedented circumstances, but we’ve got this. Here’s what I’m doing to tackle my health anxiety in the wake of COVID-19:

1. Limiting Symptom Searching

Trust me, I really do get it. Be it the irresistible pull of Web MD articles, or countless hours spent poring over outdated forum posts, it’s a highly addictive habit. Searching tirelessly for a way to ‘label’ or ‘justify’ your discomfort can often feel like the only escape. Of course, this kind of skewed logic finds unassailable traction at a time when we are being actively encouraged to ‘stay alert’, constantly monitoring ourselves for any new signs of infection. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is accepting that Dr Google is no more qualified than Doctors Who, Dre or Seuss. Indeed, this article alone is solid evidence of the fact that you do not need to hold any medical credentials to post about a health condition online. Try your best to keep track of how much time you are spending on health ‘research’, resisting the urge to revisit those terrible tabs whenever you feel able.

2. Becoming an Anxiety Expert

On those days when it really does feel impossible to stay away from the destructive allure of the Google search bar, channel your investigative energy into the most plausible cause of your distress: anxiety. Learning to recognize the different and varied ways in which high levels of emotional dysregulation can affect our bodies (e.g. shortness of breath, stomach-ache, heart palpitations) may empower us to start to seek support for our underlying worries. The same rule goes for identifying symptoms: if you really must play online detective with that headache or those chest pains, try your best to include the word ‘anxiety’ within your search. This will streamline your results, helping you to avoid the panic of being presented with that never-ending list of worst-case scenarios.

3. Restricting My News Intake

Whilst it can be helpful to have a working knowledge of current events, particularly with regard to evolving guidelines and changing social restrictions, compulsively scanning news outlets for updates on the virus can send your brain into ‘what if?’ overdrive. As a rule, it can be a good idea to limit your news consumption to a specific time of day (e.g. first thing in the morning), as well as selecting a single publication to read. By narrowing your focus, you’ll remain well-informed whilst steering clear of unhelpful, sensationalist headlines.

4. Choosing Showers Over Baths

This may seem trivial, but on those days when every mark, lump and bump signal a new, grievous illness, it may be best to avoid long soaks in the bath. One of the most frustrating aspects of living with health anxiety is that you’re forced to, quite literally, carry the problem with you. Your body becomes your worst enemy, a constant reminder of the fact that things just aren’t right. Whilst it may seem tempting to ‘wash the worries away’ with a bath bomb and a large glass of wine, I know from experience that being so boldly confronted with the reality of your own body can feel nothing short of torturous. If you really aren’t a shower person, consider bringing a gentle book to the bathroom to keep your mind occupied.

5. Being Kind to Myself!

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, health anxiety is scary. With every invented diagnosis comes a tortuous grieving process, as we make frantic attempts at processing the bleak fate to which we have resigned ourselves. Our brains have a knack for making these things feel earth-shatteringly real; we begin to behave as though we are truly in the grips of illness and shy away from our usual routines. Try not to deny these feelings. Today is not the day to ‘power through’ or maintain that ‘stiff upper lip’. Health anxiety is the body’s way of telling us that things are getting a little bit too much for our brains to handle, so try not to beat yourself up if you need to slow things down for a while.

Whilst I am by no means an expert at this, I truly hope you find these tips somewhat useful; they’re certainly helping me out at the moment.

For more information Student Space is here to make it easier for you to find the support you need during the coronavirus pandemic.

For further information on COVID-19 and looking after your mental health, click here.

I'm Caroline, a final-year student with a passion for starting conversations about mental health! I'm choosing to share my experiences on the blog with the hope of challenging the ongoing stigma surrounding those impacted by mental ill-health - nobody should have to suffer in silence!


  1. This is great information. Thank you for your courage to share! Mental health needs to be talked about a LOT more. I agree. No one should have to suffer in silence.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this timely article. I teach middle school students and have daughters getting ready to head off to college in the fall. The anxiety many of us have feels almost harder to pinpoint. There is so much going on in our world right now that knowing why we are feeling anxious seems more complicated. I will share a number of the strategies you suggest with my students.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this short and sweet piece - I have found it a great comfort