Health anxiety is a form of anxiety where worrying, obsessing about health problems and fixating on sensations in the body manifests in a variety of physical symptoms which, in turn, creates anxiety that fuels the problem. However, anxiety in general does affect the body, so for those with health anxiety, these things become a particular concern.
The brain is perfectly designed to keep us safe which activates in the event of a crisis, emergency or danger and has a very fast acting mechanism, faster than we can consciously process incoming information. The central and influential part of this early warning system is called the amygdala and reacts automatically to what it perceives as danger. So, if you were to go outside and come face to face with a big angry polar bear, you wouldn’t stand there wondering what on earth had happened to global warming trying to figure out why a polar bear was in your garden, your brain and your body would take over to get you out of there to safety.
Of course, an angry polar bear is a real danger, but it is important to understand that the brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. Using modern technology such as MRI and PET scanners, scientists have been able to show that the same areas of the brain light up to a real stimulus or an imagined one. For example, if two people were to have a brain scan, one person listening to a recording of a voice while the other, suffering from psychosis not being played a recording of a voice but instead hearing imagined voices, the same parts of the brain responsible for voice recognition would light up. In this way, the amygdala automatically reacts to real dangers or imagined ones such as worrying, what if-ing and negative thinking in general.
When the amygdala, often referred to as the flight/fight part of the brain, reacts it creates a chain reaction in the body designed to cope with an emergency, crisis or danger: –
- The heart rate increases
- Breathing increases
- A rush of oxygen, in the way of red blood cells is sent to parts of the body needed for fighting or running away, namely the major muscle groups, legs, back, shoulders, neck and arms
- Extra oxygen is sent to the brain which needs to stay sharp and focused
- Muscles constrict ready for action
- Blood is sent to the surface of the skin (you can often observe this when people blush)
- You can often feel the hormone adrenalin that is released in the pit of your stomach.
Now this is perfectly normal and useful when running away from angry polar bears and when you’re safe, the system calms down, you relax, and your body returns to its normal tick over status. However, for people with health anxiety these normal physical symptoms of being in flight or fight become a concern and they worry about them, focusing on their heart rate or breathing, perpetuating the problem.
The result is that the body get stuck in this flight/fight mode and it becomes a vicious cycle. Over time these prolonged changes in the body can cause other physical sensations or problems as the body is not equipped to remain so alert and ready for danger including.
- Back pain
- Neck and shoulder pain
- Headaches and migraines
- Restless leg syndrome
- And your mind never seems to switch off
Furthermore, energy is redirected from other parts of the body not necessary for coping with emergency, crisis or danger, including the whole digestive system and reproductive organs which can lead to conditions such as IBS, lack of libido, sexual disfunction and fertility difficulties.
The good news is however, by understanding how the mind is creating this vicious cycle and with a bit of retaining through hypnotherapy and relaxation, the body and mind can be encouraged to return to tick over and the obsessing about health fades away.
If you suffer from anxiety related disorders and would like a free initial consultation to find out how hypnotherapy can help you, either online or in the Swindon clinic, please use the contact us page or call us on 0330 223 2190.
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