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Health anxiety: Help for the well-but-worried

From the October 29, 2012 issue of the Christian Science Sentinel

Internet sites and online message boards are buzzing with people who despairingly refuse to believe they are well even though a physician has given them a clean bill of health. There’s Jimmy, for example, who confessed: “I have no reason to believe I have a particular ailment, and against all reason and logic I just feel like I have it.” 

He knows about health anxiety (also called hypochondria) but his medical diagnosis hasn’t helped. Jimmy is still haunted by what-ifs and panic attacks. He ends his comments: “I have no symptoms or risk factors, just an irrational fear that I can’t control.”

He’s not alone. There are millions of people who are inundated with alarming health information—ads and programs that tell of danger signals to watch for and reasons why they’re at risk—and they’re reaching for the panic button. People have felt at risk for centuries apparently. Remember Job, who, in biblical times, said: “The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me” (3:25).

Some may shake their heads at the idea that the worried-but-well feel such distress over their preoccupation with illness. But to those who feel such distress this is more than a wild imagination at work. There are serious concerns to be addressed and serious questions to be answered. Can these entrenched beliefs be changed? How do you go from a preoccupation with illness to an acceptance of health and wellness? 

Better fortification helps. We can all be more consistent in exercising our authority as gatekeeper of what we take in and believe. No matter how convincing or frightening thoughts may seem, the fact remains that they are still thoughts, which means they’re subject to our agreement or rejection.

The core point about health anxiety isn’t that these anxious thoughts are solid facts. The point is that they aren’t. There’s quite a difference between a normal sense of ourselves and of being flat out mesmerized by fear and an unnatural sensitivity to the body and to potential symptoms. 

Unfortunately, a lot of what feeds such fears stems from advertising and health information packaged and aggressively marketed, which weigh heavily on the side of frightening and excessive thoughts, together with an urging to integrate them more and more into our lives. 

Christian healer Mary Baker Eddy saw the impact that the media can unwittingly have on public thought and health, even in the pre-social media, pre-broadcast day in which she wrote this: “The press unwittingly sends forth many sorrows and diseases among the human family. It does this by giving names to diseases and by printing long descriptions which mirror images of disease distinctly in thought” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, pp. 196–197).

Mrs. Eddy also saw the right response to this malaise. It wasn’t to be complacent but to take a strong stand for individual freedom. We have a right to determine the quality and quantity of the thoughts that occupy our consciousness—as the determiners of what we love,
focus on, ruminate over, submit to, or utterly reject. 

Instead of scouring the Internet for everything there is to know about potential symptoms and suffering, being captivated by dangerous what-ifs and frightening expectations, it’s much smarter and healthier to reverse that course of action. Right now there can be a change of thought models and behavior. 

How? There are plenty of studies and countless personal experiences (documented in this publication, for example) that validate the healthy effect on us when our thoughts are predominantly spiritual, outward-looking, altruistic, and compassionate. 

I think this more loving spiritual atmosphere is what the New Testament writer had in mind when he recommended a higher focus of attention to the Colossians: “Set your affection on things above,” he told them, “not on things on the earth” (3:2). 

What a powerful and immediate way to respond to thoughts frozen with fear. The love that comes from God and that is peaceful, strengthening, confident, and the spiritual reality that is right here, runs counter to fear. We aren’t ever separated from this love of God, and our deep desire to understand its presence draws us closer and closer to it. That’s a thought-changer of the best kind.

In many parts of our lives we want things to change, and certainly that’s true if we’re haunted by health anxiety. It’s good to know that we can change our patterns of thinking. In a very real and immediate way we can resist thoughts that feed fear, and instead let in thoughts that show the powerful role God’s love plays in living a fearless, healthy, and wholesome life.

Russ Gerber is Manager of Christian Science Committees on Publication for The First Church of Christ, Scientist.

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