Inside the condition that’s characterized by living in fear of the virus – and which experts say is becoming more common in the U.S.
By Susan Peck
Featured photo by Engin Akyurt
Since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived last year, some Americans have been obsessed with their health — living in fear of ending up in a hospital with the virus, and having negative long term health effects from the disease.
Obsessive fear of infection is called illness anxiety disorder, and some medical experts say it’s become widespread in the United States today.
The Mayo Clinic describes symptoms of the disorder as “having so much distress about possible illness that it’s hard to function.” Signs of unhealthy obsession include constantly checking for fever or other signs of illness; avoiding people, places and activities they enjoy; and frequently searching the internet for symptoms or possible illnesses.
“We have never received as many calls with complaints of anxiety and fear related to the same specific trigger as we have since the onset of the pandemic,” says family therapist Lori Edelson of Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy. “Fears about getting ill, contracting COVID and the ongoing impact of living in a world where the possibility of a pandemic is ever present are some of the most common themes causing individuals to seek therapy now,” she adds. “I would estimate that health-related anxieties may be up as much as 60 to 75%.”
According to the World Psychiatry Association, Covid illness anxiety is unique because it is, of course, justified to be concerned with your health status in the middle of a pandemic, when over 600,000 Americans have died from the virus so far. But when the anxiety affects daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help.
“Talk therapy, with or without anti-anxiety medication, appears to be the best treatment when illness anxiety is impacting a person’s functioning,” Edelson says. “Many therapeutic approaches can be extremely effective to help reduce and eliminate obsessive preoccupation and overwhelming fears about illness. People need to open up about their fears with someone they trust who can help them understand the cause and ongoing stressors that keep the anxiety going.”
One ongoing factor causing anxiety is that it still isn’t clear when people can expect to resume normal activities with ease, even as millions have been vaccinated against Covid-19. Carol Cambridge of Royal Oak, 48, suffers from illness anxiety disorder and hopes to feel some relief soon. “As of now, I don’t feel any different after my Covid vaccination,” she says. “With the threat of future surges and the variant viruses now infecting many people I feel the same fear in my life. I actually don’t know when I’ll ever feel ready to re-enter the world, and it breaks my heart.”
Edelson says it may be a long time before we return to “normal” — if ever. “Normal as we knew it has likely changed forever,” she says. “We are highly sensitized now to the life-changing effects of a pandemic. For many, it will be a very long time before our central nervous systems calm down from the past year of severe stress.” Still, she says, being mindful of your feelings is crucial to helping that process. “The key is for you and your family to stay on top of your mental health issues,” she says, “and get proper support to deal with these pandemic-related anxieties.”
Tips to conquer illness anxiety
Stress-reduction techniques such as deep, strategic breathing, meditation, guided imagery, yoga and communicating with others may help relieve anxiety. Medical experts offer these additional suggestions.
- Limit your time online, especially if you’re looking up symptoms.
- See a doctor to rule out real medical issues, and discuss your concerns.
- Get enough sleep.
- Eat regular, healthy meals including fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs, which ultimately can increase anxiety.
- Seek professional help if your anxiety doesn’t decrease in two weeks.