How to Break Free from the Mental Addiction of Health Anxiety

by | Jun 2, 2019 | Anxiety, Health anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts, Relationships | 17 comments

Like all forms of anxiety, health anxiety is on the rise. With information about our health more available than ever, the anxious mind that seeks control at all costs can easily latch onto health as a hotbed theme that invites this mind to shift into overdrive. You mean I can prevent catastrophic events from happening if I only take these actions? Nothing could make the ego happier than jumping onto a train with control as the conductor. But there is no true happiness that arises when ego becomes perseverated on a theme. In fact, it’s nothing short of hell.

Like all intrusive thoughts, health anxiety is a mental addiction that keeps you caught in a thought-loop as a way to try to gain control and certainty in our fundamentally uncertain world.

Like all intrusive thoughts, health anxiety is an arrow pointing to the four realms of Self – an invitation to connect with what is needed or off-kilter in body, heart, mind, and soul.

Like all intrusive thoughts, there are both on-the-spot practices to manage moments of high anxiety and deep dive tools to heal from the root. One of the most powerful on-the-spot practices is to ask this cut-through question, which helps grow your compassionate and wise self. Locating and connecting to this part of self is an essential element of healing from anxiety in all forms. Another effective cut-through action in moments of high health anxiety is to move your body is some way: walk, dance, go to the gym, swim, rake leaves. Shifting into our bodies not only moves energy through us but it also helps make the essential shift out of head-space and into our hearts, where the true healing happens.

Three Divergent Elements of Health Anxiety

But where health anxiety diverges from other anxiety themes is that, like the money spike, the stakes are higher. While those struggling with relationship anxiety know that answering the intrusive thought “Am I with the right partner?” isn’t a matter of life-and-death (although it certainly feels like it is), with health anxiety the ego-mind takes the presenting symptom and catastrophizes to the worst case scenario, which is death. For many people who find their way to my work, while they’ve been familiar with health anxiety since childhood (frequent visits to the school nurse is a common story), it often redoubles its efforts after working through relationship anxiety. I’ll hear, “I found your work because I was struggling with relationship anxiety, but as soon as I worked through that theme, the health anxiety rushed up like an active volcano.”

This is because each anxiety theme, while sharing common pain points, also carry their own invitations; each one is an arrow pointing to our wholeness in different areas. When the arrow first pierces consciousness, it’s red-hot and on fire. But as we learn to work with it and follow its lead into the labyrinth of self, the arrow cools and even, amazingly, becomes an ally.

Another divergent element to health anxiety is that there is often a “real” symptom that initiates a spiral. You’re having digestive challenges, headaches, or heart issues. You notice a tremor or a twitch. The pain under your ribs or in your neck won’t go away. You have a rash on your chest. Your mind then grabs the baton of fear and runs into the anxious storm. It doesn’t matter that your doctor has told you that there’s nothing urgent; your anxious-mind-gone-Google-insane is convinced that you’re going to die.

Still a third divergent element is that it’s easier to name the metaphor in health anxiety. Heart issues (which is one of the ways my health anxiety has presented) is often a manifestation of heartbreak or heartache, and the cut-through question to ask is: “What historic or current grief is settling into my heart?” If you’re struggling with digestive issues, the question to ask is, “What am I having a hard time digesting?” With an invasive rash, the question to ask is, “Where have I have been rash or impulsive?” Even in this moment, notice what happens to your tension when you ask a question that points to the metaphor instead of taking your symptoms at face value and as evidence of catastrophe.

This isn’t to say that health anxiety should only be addressed at the level of metaphor. Again, like all forms of anxiety, we must address it in the four realms in order to heal from the root. This means asking, “What does my body need regarding this symptom? Do I need to address my diet? Do I need more rest? Do I need to exercise more?” With heart palpitations, which are a rhythm issue, a powerful question to ask is, “What element of my life is out of rhythm?” But the key here is to recognize that we can ask these questions from a fear-and-panic place, which will only amplify the stress response and then amplify the symptoms (this is the vicious cycle of health anxiety), or we can ask from a clear and wise self that is deeply interested in developing a more compassionate relationship with your physical body.

One of my favorite stories that elucidates both the metaphor and the invitation in health anxiety is this one that Robert Johnson shares in his book, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love:

“If a man or woman clings to the dominant patriarchal attitude and refuses to make peace with the inner feminine, then she will demand a tribute. When we refuse to integrate a powerful new potentiality from the unconscious, the unconscious will exact a tribute one way or another. The tribute may take the form of a neurosis, a compulsive mood, hypochondria, obsessions, imaginary illnesses, or a paralyzing depression. In his writings, Carl Jung gives a vivid example. His patient was a brilliant intellectual, a scientist. The man tried to exist without feelings, without emotional relationships, without a religious life. He suddenly developed an obsessive belief in a stomach cancer. The cancer did not exist physically, yet he suffered all the terrors of hell. The obsession terrorized him and his professional life. His orderly, rational mind could not solve the problem. He found relief from his obsessions only when he consented to integrate the feminine side of his psyche – the human values and spiritual values he had discarded many years before.”

It’s the broken system, the patriarchy, that sequesters and squashes the feminine, which is our relatedness, our “human and spiritual values.” At the core, health anxiety is an extraordinary urging to reconnect with these lost places.

Healing from the Root

This is what I teach in Grace Through Uncertainty: A 30-Day Course to Heal Intrusive Thoughts, Address Health/Death/Money Anxiety from the Root, Feel More Comfortable with Change, and Become the Source of Your Own Aliveness. My own bout with health anxiety upon finding a lump in my side in 2016 (which I share in the course), as well as the stories of dozens of clients and friends who I have walked alongside as they batted with their health anxiety, inspired me to create this course. If you would like to learn the most effective tools I know to manage and heal intrusive thoughts from the root as you learn to fall in love with life in an entirely new way, please join me for this second round, which will begin on June 22, 2019. I look forward to meeting you there.


  1. Sheryl, absolutely amazing post. I have started to suffer from health anxiety after working through my relationship anxiety and honestly, it can be pretty terrifying! Thank you for this amazing post.

    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Emily :). Yes, health anxiety can be terrifying! It cuts right to the core of our sense of safety and our fear of death.

  2. Relationship anxiety guy here. What timing. I’m 30. This post came only a week after I suddenly got a sharp pain/cramp in my chest at work from which I immediately went to google – and well – freaked out thinking I was getting coronary heart disease/heart attack (wow!). In fairness: I do have somewhat high cholesterol. I left work immediately and drove my self to Emergency Room and sat on a bench 20 yards from entry. It wasn’t a bad place to get over the anxiety I’ll tell you that. Took hours. Doesn’t help when you are afraid of the hospital! Big commitment to go inside. Luckily have tremendous family support – my mom and dad drove 45 min to pick me up and comfort me. Side note: my dad has done this exact thing multiple times (cc: mom). He has suffered from anxiety for over 25+ years. Anyways – I eventually got over it. It most likely is something gastrointestinal. Need more answers/clarity there. But reaffirmation – health anxiety is powerful. Feels like it roots to the deep fear of death and losing everything you have. Loss of control! Fear of unknown. Couldn’t stop thinking about all the people I love so much and no longer will see. Moreover – I have now experienced close to 10 moments of intense anxiety/panic (one time ended up in hospital after smoking too much pot – was totally convinced I was dying
    – that night I won’t forget).

    What’s helped me get through is connecting with nature, fitness every day (steam/sauna is fundamental), good mindful company, tasteful music. Meditation.

    • Thank you for sharing your story, D, and I’m so glad you have excellent support and have found loving and nourishing actions to help.

  3. Hi Sheryl,

    Long time reader, first time poster! As usual, your blogs continue to enter my inbox in the most pristine, timely fashion. My anxiety has manifested in countless ways throughout my life, including HOCD, relationship anxiety, sexuality anxiety…you name it. But health anxiety has been a part of me since I was a child (I indeed was the one in the nurse’s office almost daily). Google has been my compulsion for too long and each time I open that browser I kick myself for allowing me to go down that depressing rabbit hole and fueling the fire.

    I intend to look into this course as it seems to be what I need now, but I’m curious to know if you’ve heard of health anxiety specifically about mental health? This is perhaps my most confusing version of health anxiety. Sometimes I get anxiety so bad I experience depersonalization (an extremely scary side effect), or other days I’ll be down on myself and I suddenly become so frightened of developing more “serious” mental health issues such as severe depression or experiencing derealization more often that I do everything to try and combat that possibility. It seems almost laughable and confusing to have mental health anxiety when anxiety is – in and of itself – a mental health issue. I’ve known myself with anxiety for so long I feel I have some sort of “control” over it, but the idea of anything added (physically or mentally) would be catastrophic. Do you think this course would help this specifically?

    Thanks so much again for your incredible work. It’s been such a gift!

    • The course would be extremely helpful for you, Jenna, as it will help you address all manifestations of your intrusive thoughts from the root, including mental health obsessions (which are quite common). I’ve worked with this obsession as well as depersonalization extensively with my clients using the tools I teach in the course with great success. I hope you’ll join us!

    • Hi Jenna!
      Just to say that I know how scary depersonalization is. No word describes it better than Scary. Experimenting with my diet made it diminish drastically, if not completely go away. For me the big problem was dairy. It’s like the severe anxiety, and my skin issues, were a result of my body not being able to digest milk protein. By experimenting even more with diet my physical and mental health improved even further. But I am sure which foods we tolerate and do not tolerate is very different for each if us.

      Sheryl, a suggestion for a blog topic would be exactly this: your thoughts about how certain food can cause anxiety.

      Best wishes,

    • Hi Jenna,

      I struggle with mental health anxiety too. I would love to speak with you more about this and learn more about how you overcame it if you are so willing. I have never met anyone like myself so finding your comment was relieving.

  4. What a gift this is! I am digging deep and working through this issue with regression therapy, PNRT therapy (of which I am a practitioner), CBT, and most recently addressing the issue of self-love and worth. You however, put a name to this manic feeling within me. And…knowing I am not alone (with this lovely post), is reassuring. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad it was helpful, Sophia!

  5. Hi, Sheryl,

    Thanks so much for this. I had rampant health anxiety as a child (knew more about cancer and AIDS than any 10 year old should!!!) and this affirms my lifelong predisposition to anxiety that, in the depths of my RA, I doubt deeply. I have a question about your coursework. I purchased the Conscious Weddings course when I was engaged. It was helpful, but I don’t think I was committed enough to daily work. Two years into marriage and I’m walking through another severe RA spike – going on 2 months. Outside of these intense periods, I usually have low grade RA and indulge in checking and analyzing constantly in my head. My most recent obsession has been “is my relationship unhealthy and I don’t realize it”. Man this one has been unique and intense. It still shocks me how deceitful fear can be.

    All that to say – I’m thinking of purchasing your break free course, but am financially strapped so am wondering if it’s worth it if I already have the Conscious Weddings material – is it different enough?

    Thanks for any advice, and as always, all you do.

    • Yachal: The Break Free course would be ideal for you. It’s 95% different material from the Conscious Weddings Course, and because you have the first course you’re eligible for a $50 discount for this one. Please contact my assistant, Kathryn, at [email protected] for a coupon code.

  6. Beautifully written, as always 🙂 The book suggested by you, “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” was a truly life-changer on the subject. It truly changed my views on health and how we can achieve it and produce it day by day 🙂

  7. I never usually post a comment or anything and I’m brand new to you but this post couldn’t have come at a better time for me and finding this post.

    For something that struggles with health anxiety and more so lately.

    I’ve gone to the doctors and specialist and done test and they tell me I’m fine but then your health anxiety is like no something is wrong and this symptoms is real and I never really thought of asking that body part and asking what is that your telling me? It was kind of an aha moment in a since for me like wow let’s come at this from a different perspective or angle.

    I know is going to take a lot of work and patience to practice but it’s a start.

    I hope one day I can do your course as it’s to expensive for me but I bought your book and that’s a start for me.

    So hears to facing fear in the face and not running away from it and just taking it one day at a time.

    • I’m so glad you were on the call and I have no doubt that my book will continue to support your growth. Welcome to my work ;).

  8. I suffer from extreme health anxiety. I want to learn more about your approach.

    • The best way to learn is through Grace Through Uncertainty, but if you’re not ready for a course I recommend starting with my book The Wisdom of Anxiety.


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