6 mins

Can your mind create symptoms? The physical effects of worrying

Do you spend your evenings frantically consulting Dr Google? Tuning into any (and every) body sensation you have and immediately predicting the worst? 

Maybe you’ve even started “worrying about worrying” which only makes your anxiety worse.

Living through a pandemic, it’s natural that we might be feeling a little more anxious than usual. In fact, in one sense, our anxiety can play a protective role through this. After all, it’s our anxiety which drives us to maintain social distancing, wash our hands, wear our masks, and generally try and keep ourselves safe.

But sometimes it can go a step (or several) too far.

Whilst it’s good and healthy to be cautious, obsessing gets us nowhere. And the latter usually serves as an indicator that there’s something more at play.

What is health anxiety?

Health anxiety can be summed up by an excessive fear of having – or contracting – a disease.

Some of the symptoms to look out for are:

  • You live with an almost constant fear that there’s something wrong with you.
  • You find yourself scouring the internet looking for confirmation that you’re ill.
  • When you read about a disease, you immediately start worrying you might have it.
  • Your health worries have started to interfere in your quality of life.

So, is it your mind creating symptoms?

In one sense yes, but that’s not the full story…. If you have health anxiety your symptoms likely come from the mind, but they are still very much real.

This is because anxiety affects both our mind and our body – with short and long-term effects. 

Many of us are familiar with the mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety, but fewer are aware that there are physical side effects too.

When we’re anxious, something called the “sympathetic nervous system” gets activated. This is the part of our nervous system which is associated with threat, triggering our fight-or-flight response. 

Fight or flight is the body’s automatic response to danger. It’s sole purpose is to help us stay alive when we perceive danger. As the name suggests, it prepares us to either “fight” for our survival or to run away and “flee”.

When we’re in fight-or-flight, the body gets flooded with stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Our heart beats faster to send more blood to our muscles… Our pupils dilate so that we can see better… Alongside a whole range of other physical changes.

Back in our hunter gatherer days, when we were trying to flee that sabre-toothed tiger lurking in the bushes, this was quite literally a “life saver”. However, when it comes to our more modern and everyday anxieties, less so.

If we’re living with an anxiety disorder, our body is in this state almost constantly – something it’s not designed for. And things can fall out of whack pretty quickly.

So it’s less about the mind creating symptoms. The symptoms are probably real – they’re just not a result of the illness you’re attributing them to. 

Instead, they’re a symptom of your anxiety.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the physical symptoms of anxiety:

Feeling “out of body”, dizzy or faint

Fight or flight causes our breathing to become rapid and shallow – in other words, we start “hyperventilating”. Hyperventilation allows the lungs to take in more oxygen, preparing us to escape physical danger. But one of the side effects is that it can end up making us feel dizzy, lightheaded, tingly or faint.

Weakens our immunity

Prolonged anxiety can lead to inflammation in the body, weakening our immune system. This leaves us more vulnerable to catching a cold, the flu and other types of infection.

Tummy troubles

When we’re in fight or flight, our body puts a stop to processes it considers to be “nonessential”. One of these is our digestive system. This means that prolonged anxiety can lead to IBS-like symptoms, such as, constipation, diarrhhea, and food intolerances. We may also feel nauseous.

Weird aches and pains

In fight or flight, our blood flow gets sent to our largest muscles, preparing us for action. This can cause weird aches, pains and twitches in the body which can be easily mistaken for something else.

Heart palpitations (and even sometimes chest pains)

High levels of adrenaline can lead to heart palpitations or “fluttering” sensations in the heart.

Rashes, itchiness and changes to the skin

Heightened levels of stress hormones in the body can lead to inflammation in the body which may exacerbate pre-existing skin issues and conditions like psoriasis, eczema and acne.

What to do when health anxiety symptoms seem so real

Healthy anxiety symptoms seem real because they are real. So, firstly, it’s important to stress that just because your pain is caused by anxiety – rather something physical – doesn’t make it any less valid. Our mind and our body are one and the same. Your distress is real – it isn’t a fabrication.

But perhaps the biggest problem with health anxiety – as with many other psychological difficulties – is that it can easily become self-perpetuating. We become so hypersensitive to minor tweaks and sensations in the body that we find ourselves jumping straight to worst case scenario. When in reality, our body is shifting and changing all the time – and some days are naturally going to feel better than others. 

The more we worry, the worse the physical symptoms get. We become so convinced that we are sick, that we end up seeking out the wrong kind of help. And so the cycle continues…

CBT for health anxiety – how can it help?

Health anxiety is very much treatable. It’s not something you need to live with and it isn’t something you’re expected to just “get over”. Health anxiety often comes alongside other mental health issues like anxiety, depression, PTSD so getting the right treatment is key.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help you break free from the negative cycle that maintains your anxiety. Very often this means looking at distorted thoughts and beliefs you have around your health, and reducing any unhelpful coping mechanisms that exacerbate your anxiety.

There’s no doubt our body holds an innate wisdom. But instead of obsessing over it, you’ll learn to use its subtle cues as a guide towards creating the life you want.

 

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

8 January 2021

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Elena Touroni

Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector.


Having obtained a first degree in Psychology (BSc) at the American College of Greece, she completed her doctoral training at the University of Surrey. Dr. Touroni is highly experienced in the assessment and treatment of depression, anxiety, substance misuse, personality disorder, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, adjustment disorder and relationship difficulties. She works with both individuals and couples and can offer therapy in English and Greek.


Dr. Touroni has held a variety of clinical and managerial positions including as Head of Service in the NHS. Further she has held academic positions for the University of Surrey and the Institute of Mental Health lecturing on specialist postgraduate Masters and Doctorate programmes.


She is trained in several specialist therapeutic approaches such as schema therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness-based approaches and Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT). As well as holding a variety of NHS positions, Dr. Touroni is the co-founder of a private practice in Central London that has been a provider of psychological therapy for all common emotional difficulties including personality disorder since 2002. She is the founder and one of two directors of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.