Worry comes in all shapes and sizes and from different sources, but a common one is worry over one’s health symptoms.  Recently fueled by Covid-19, there is a great deal of awareness on physical conditions and now you find yourself conducting internet searches on symptoms. What you may find can turn out to be quite alarming and ignite anxiety.

Let’s say your stomach has been bothering you for a few days.  You decide to look it up online and put “stomach ache” in your search engine. Web MD tells you that it could be the flu or food poisoning, or some type of autoimmune disease or cancer.  Your anxiety kicks in.  You read article after article, hours on end which feed the “What if?” thoughts and begin to play loud and often.  And then comes the feelings- fear, dread, sadness, etc.

The interesting thing about the internet is that if you are looking for something you believe to be true, you will most certainly find it (even if it isn’t in fact true).  If your stomach issues are interpreted by you as colon cancer, and you continue to look into it, you will most certainly find evidence of a person who had that symptom and that condition.  It’s a perfect example of confirmation bias, which is that in general people acknowledge information that is congruent with their beliefs.  You could have colon cancer, and you also may not.

I’m not suggesting that you don’t use the internet as a source of information regarding symptoms A-Z.  It’s important to be your own health advocate and learn about possible conditions to bring forward to a medical professional.  What I’m instead recommending is not getting sucked down the rabbit hole of health literature that can lead to excessive time spent scrolling online feeding fears that aren’t reality and leading you to be stressed and anxious.

It may help to first recognize the role your brain has on assessing threat.  The thought that something may be an illness in your body is not in and of itself “bad” or “wrong.”  Your brain is signaling that something could be wrong and that you may be able to do something to fix it.  Your brain is assessing threat.  If you didn’t have this threat response at all, you may have not made the choice to go check something out with a doctor, or cross a street safely, or refrain from touching a hot stove. It’s when this threat response “misfires” and impairs your daily functioning, causes you loss of sleep, takes over your ability to focus on tasks, problem solve, make decisions, calm yourself and reset, that it would benefit from reflection.  Sometimes the amygdala in the brain that’s detecting threat is sensitive due to a past threat. Other times, it’s a new threat that is perceived as a threat because it’s new. Either way your brain is just trying to keep you safe.

How do you turn off the constant worry over health (yours or a loved one)?

  • Just like other intrusive thoughts, you distance yourself from it. Accept other thoughts to enter in.  You have an anxious thought, and then allow yourself to think of another random thought.  For example,” Oh look there I go thinking I have colon cancer. There is that thought.  Now I’m going to have another thought.  I’m thinking about watering the plants. That is another thought. Maybe I’ll think about a work task.”  Your thoughts are just thoughts, and not all of them are true or amazingly significant.
  • Notice the thought, give yourself a time limit of thinking about it (internet search maybe like 15 min max), and then gently shift to another thought that leads to action.

This could mean actively making an appointment with a doctor or planning a time in the near future to do so.  Or it could mean shifting focus from the anxious thought to doing a chore or work task, taking a walk outside and noticing elements in nature, listening to music, talking to someone.

  • Postpone the worry. Tell yourself you will give it some more thought later in the day, give it a time.  When that limit the amount of time to think about it- 10 or 15 min. and problem solve some ways you can address the concern.
  • Think about “Better but Believable” (Dr. Jennifer Abel) thoughts that aren’t as stressful than the original worry.  “I have cancer” can turn into “I may have the stomach flu” or “I might have food poisoning.” “If I’m ill I will get treatment to feel better.”

Your physical and mental health are important and should not be ignored.  Be careful about the temptation to search for quick explanations online that may take more comprehensive research by professionals.

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