I started working on sorting out my mental health issues a few months ago by going to talk therapy, mainly because panic attacks have been a genuine struggle for me. I also have faced generally high amounts of anxiety. This is why I decided to discuss the topic of health anxiety.
Health anxiety is defined as “an obsessional concern” that someone will experience a “serious physical illness, despite reassurance from medical professionals that they are healthy.”
I was surprised to learn this was pretty much a consistent definition from various sources, including the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. I remember as a kid I used to have really high blood pressure whenever I had to go to the doctor. I was about 8, and my doctor called it “white coat syndrome.” All of these years later, I’m surprised that this is a real thing defined by a “patient having anxiety in a medical environment causing their blood pressure to read abnormally high.”
I can remember my heart pounding in my ears, my stomach turning into a sea of sickness, and feelings of terror, but I didn’t have the words to express what I was feeling or why, so I didn’t. Usually, the doctor would come in, talk to me for a few minutes, and then talk to my parents to see if anything had been going on to cause my high blood pressure (medications, problems at school, other health issues, etc.). Then, he would make everyone leave the room for 20 minutes before attempting to get a better read. Most of the time, this worked well enough and my blood pressure would improve.
The main difference between health anxiety and white coat syndrome, according to various definitions, is that people with health anxiety are healthy, while someone with white coat syndrome could be healthy or not. I remember learning that my grandfather also had white coat syndrome. So, where does this leave people living with a chronic illness who have many valid reasons for being anxious about an upcoming appointment?
Can white coat syndrome also explain why I sometimes feel a sense of dread before walking into my therapist’s office — even if she’s not wearing a white coat? If it’s a doctor’s office with no actual medical stuff, is it considered a medical setting? I worry that people who don’t live with a chronic illness or suffer from anxiety might think these issues are technicalities, or that they are no big deal. But how long have you been putting off that dentist appointment because you don’t want to go?
Health anxiety can affect anyone. It is a separate anxiety disorder of its own, and it is real. I think it is more common than people may think, and some may not realize they are experiencing it. I’m certain some people believe that the overwhelming fear they feel when stepping into a doctor’s office is “normal.” It doesn’t have to be. You can take control by speaking up. If you can’t talk to your doctor about your fears, especially in the beginning, reach out to a friend. Everyone can relate to being nervous about going to the doctor, even if what you’re experiencing is more than just nerves. A discussion is a good place to start and the first step to gaining control of your health anxiety.
Note: Cerebral Palsy News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disorder. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cerebral Palsy News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cerebral palsy.