For introverts who experience hypochondria, worrying about getting sick becomes the focal point of their life.
I was only 16 years old when I started working at the hospital as a nurse’s assistant doing night shifts: taking care of patients, earning some pocket money, and saving for college. I liked the job and somehow ended up staying much longer than initially planned — seven years.
As a highly sensitive introvert, I liked the routine of the job and my empathetic nature turned out to be an asset for the patients. For example, if a patient was lonely and felt the need to talk, I wouldn’t mind staying an extra hour even after my shift had ended. But, at the same time, I’d absorb their emotions and feelings, too, which would sometimes be a challenge.
(Are you a highly sensitive person? Here are 21 signs that you’re an HSP.)
Looking back, I think it was one of my most eye-opening life experiences; I grew a lot as a human being and it taught me a lot about compassion and kindness. However, since I encountered death on such a regular basis at work, I think the job contributed to my developing health anxiety, also known as hypochondria. This is when getting sick (or worrying about getting sick) becomes the focal point of your life. According to research, it can occur as a result of stress, a serious illness, recovering from a serious illness, or after losing a family member.
But the good news is, with the help of a therapist, I managed to overcome it — and I want to give you hope that you can, too.
How to Manage Health Anxiety as a Highly Sensitive Introvert
1. Make sure it really is health anxiety — medical problems must be ruled out first.
Four years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder where the thyroid cannot produce enough hormones because of antibodies attacking it. I’d been having odd symptoms — like losing so much hair that it regularly clogged the bathtub and gaining weight (even though I hadn’t changed my eating habits).
After many years of thinking all the symptoms were in my head (since I’m on the anxious side, with a tendency to think of worst-case scenarios), I finally went to see a doctor. Although doctors’ visits are different for highly sensitive types, I’m glad they figured out what was wrong.
A few years later, I experienced a one-sided headache over a period of a few weeks and immediately went to see a neurologist. Feelings of fear, dread, or unease can be paralyzing — especially if you have health anxiety. While nervously waiting to see the doctor, this time I remembered that even if it could be the worst-case scenario, I did everything I could: coming to see the doctor and not downplaying my symptoms. It only took him a few minutes to let me know it was a specific kind of headache, called a hemicrania continua, and definitely not a brain tumor.
But these experiences taught me to see a doctor first, before telling myself, “It is all in my head,” which we highly sensitive types may initially think. And I am quite sure, according to all the symptoms I experienced, I was living undiagnosed for years with Hashimoto’s because of the way I’d dismissed my symptoms for so long.
2. Don’t Google your symptoms, but if you do, also look up statistics.
We’ve all done it. Either it is a sharp, weird pain in your knee or a sudden headache that you’ve never experienced before, so: Let’s ask Dr. Google! Why? Because it’s convenient and only takes a few seconds to be bombarded with tons of potential explanations. And the results are… most probably cancer or some terminal illness — which is exactly why we should never Google our symptoms!
But I know, based on my own experience, that sometimes it’s just too tempting not to. Plus, we introverts like to do research and deep work and get to the bottom of things.
Let’s say you feel pain on the left side of the head and end up with the Google diagnosis of having a brain tumor. Then at least also look up how many people actually really end up with this diagnosis. According to statistics, a person’s likelihood of developing this type of tumor in their lifetime is less than one percent.
3. Find a doctor you trust and who takes you seriously.
I can’t stress this enough. If you feel like your doctor isn’t listening or doesn’t take you and your symptoms seriously, you have to change doctors. Sometimes the chemistry just isn’t right, as every doctor has their own approach. But with health anxiety, you need someone you can trust and fully open up to.
As it isn’t easy for us introverts to open up to someone new, and interacting with others wears us out, when it comes to your health, it’s crucial to change your provider if it simply isn’t a good match. Since we are often better at writing our thoughts than speaking them, I know it can feel intimidating to start the journey with a new medical professional — you’ll probably have to tell your story all over again. But in my case, it was worth it and I was able to establish a trustworthy relationship with a new doctor who got me.
4. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy to help retrain your brain.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective forms of therapy when it comes to health anxiety. It focuses on our cognition, the way we think, and our behaviors. CBT aims to help you overcome your fears by correcting irrational thoughts and changing problematic behaviors. For instance, when my thoughts would start spiraling out of control, I learned how to develop coping skills to reel them back in.
Whenever an irrational thought would arise, I’d address it. Sometimes, I’d write it down and do a “self-assessment,” which included focusing on everything that did work within my body.
I’d quickly realize I didn’t want to miss out on life because of a preoccupied mind full of irrational thoughts and fears. (And you know how we introverts love to think.)
This was also the first time I was introduced to mindfulness and the power of living in the now. For example, mindfulness meditation trains the brain to stay in the moment vs. constantly thinking, “What if…?” According to research, patients treated with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy showed decreased health anxiety.
5. Dig deeper and understand where your fear is coming from, then stop blaming yourself.
As a highly sensitive introvert, I am naturally a very introspective person. I know I inherited my overcautiousness from my father: He was a child when his father died next to him in the car because of a sudden heart attack, which traumatized him. Once I connected the dots, I stopped blaming myself for being the way I am.
Plus, as a perfectionist, I have always been cautious and careful with everything I do in life, but I’ve since learned to shift my perspective and see the good in my traits. I have positive affirmations hanging in my apartment all around me and pay close attention to my self-talk.
Similarly, instead of focusing on the negative symptoms that come with my autoimmune disorder, I learned about all the benefits of changing my diet and overall lifestyle, which led to losing all the extra pounds I’d gained and made me feel fitter than ever. I now honestly believe my diagnosis was a wake-up call that made me change my life for the better.
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6. Know your triggers, like social media or how negative news can affect you.
As a highly sensitive introvert, I easily absorb other people’s pain and emotions. So I have a love/hate relationship with social media and had to learn how to use it the “right” way. This means I follow people who spread positivity and inspire me to change what I can change and am in control of.
For example, following certain people on Instagram unconsciously triggered my fears about getting ill. I unfollowed a wonderful and strong lady who documents her fight against cancer. I admire her for her strength and the awareness she spreads, but this does not mean that I need to follow her in my specific context.
The same may come into play with real-life friends. They can be wonderful people in person, but triggering on social media because their sarcasm doesn’t always transfer well over the computer. I also choose not to watch satire or memes about anxiety.
While I want to stay on track with what’s going on in the world, instead of consuming news excessively, I uninstalled several apps on my phone and only check the news once (and briefly) every morning on my computer.
7. Stay away from people who downplay how you feel.
It took me years to realize that it’s not OK for people to make fun of a health condition I may or may not have. And it certainly doesn’t help if someone says, “No worries, she’s a hypochondriac, just like her dad.” If anyone says that to me now, I gladly remind them that health anxiety is a serious condition and that I feel proud of myself for having sought professional help. There is still a stigma around mental health, but I gladly raise awareness whenever I can.
So surround yourself with people who validate your feelings and help you look for solutions rather than joke about your health ailments. As I surrounded myself more with like-minded people, I became more confident in my ability to heal as I began to have more meaningful, deeper connections with them.
I also wanted to master cultivating compassion toward myself. I learned to do so from one of my favorite books, The Blooming of a Lotus. After practicing for a while, I experienced a boost of self-confidence.
My therapist also recommended “checking in” with myself every morning, asking questions like, “How am I feeling today?” It makes me more aware of the present moment and the importance of my own needs, like feeling in control of my life and remembering that I cannot pour from an empty cup. In other words, I need to take care of myself first — an important lesson for us all.
I help highly sensitive introverts rebuild their lives after a major life change like a loss, breakup, or emigration. Let’s talk: KimBenker.com.
You might like:
- 21 Signs You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
- 15 Signs You’re an Introvert With High-Functioning Anxiety
- How to Stay Married to an Extrovert When You’re an Introvert
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