By Dr. Mercola
Worrying about your health can be a self-fulfilling prophesy, researchers warn, raising your risk of heart disease and death. Anxiety and neurotic traits have also previously been linked to a higher risk for Alzheimer's disease.
For most people, getting a negative test result back from your doctor is a relief, but for an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people, such news make no difference — they still worry about their health, even if they don't have any significant symptoms to back up their concerns. As noted by The Guardian:1
"If you have health anxiety, there is no test on earth to reassure you … Health anxiety is the persistent preoccupation with having a serious illness. It involves monitoring your body closely, misinterpreting symptoms and often seeking medical advice …
[Dr.] Peter Tyrer, professor of community psychiatry and an expert on health anxiety, says it is the level of anxiety that sets it apart from hypochondriasis."
This kind of health anxiety can make you physically ill, even if there was nothing wrong with you to begin with.
Health Anxiety Linked to Higher Risk of Heart Disease
According to recent research,2,3,4 people with health anxiety have a significantly higher risk of developing heart disease compared to those who don't worry in the absence of serious symptoms.
In all, 7,050 people filled out questionnaires to assess their overall health, including thoughts and concerns about their health. The top 10 percent of worriers were considered to have health anxiety. Twenty years later, their mental outlook was compared to actual health outcomes.
Those who had health anxiety had double the rate of heart disease compared to those without health anxiety — 6 percent compared to 3 percent. As reported by Forbes:5
"Even after taking out variables that are known to be linked to heart risk, the connection still stood, with people with health anxiety having a 70 percent greater risk of developing heart disease …
[T]here was a 'dose-dependent' relationship, where the worse the health anxiety, the greater the likelihood of developing heart disease down the road."
Clearly, the idea that health anxiety in and of itself may cause heart disease is the last thing chronic worriers want or need to hear. And yet it's important to understand such mind-body dynamics so that you can address the real problem — your anxiety. As noted by the authors of the study:
'These findings illustrate the dilemma for clinicians between reassuring the patient that current physical symptoms of anxiety do not represent heart disease, contrasted against the emerging knowledge on how anxiety, over time, may be causally associated with increased risk …
At best, this finding might encourage patients to seek treatment for health anxiety and to trust their heart."
Do You Have Health Anxiety?
At the far extreme is hypochondria, which is when a person is convinced they have a serious, undiagnosed disease. For a hypochondriac, a sore throat related to a cold may be interpreted as throat cancer, for example. But health anxiety can span a wide range of severity.
How do you know if you have health anxiety? According to Tyrer, answering yes to any of these three questions suggest you may qualify, and would likely benefit from seeking behavioral-based help:
- Have certain symptoms caused you a great deal of worry?
- Do you worry about your health in general?
- Do you feel your problem is more serious than your doctors have found?
According to Tyrer, getting reassurance from a medical professional will not do you any good if you have health anxiety. Instead, he recommends seeking help from a cognitive behavioral therapist to help you "reinterpret" your obsessive thoughts.
Mindfulness training is another option that has been shown to have long-lasting effects. Keeping a journal will also help you link your physical symptoms and mental worries to your day-to-day activities. As Tyrer told The Guardian:
"The symptoms themselves are often due to anxiety, such as chest pain. We get people to make the connection themselves. For example, if they get chest pain at work but not when digging the garden then it's unlikely to be physical, cardiac pain."
Pessimism Takes a Toll on Your Health
Another study shows just how much pessimism in general raises your risk of ill health. This study6 followed 2,200 people in Finland for 11 years. The participants' levels of optimism and pessimism were assessed at the outset and later correlated with actual health outcomes.
Those who were the most pessimistic had a 220 percent higher risk of dying over the course of the study compared to the most optimistic ones. They also had a 73 percent higher risk of lethal heart disease. A dose-dependent link was seen here as well.
Overall, the more pessimistic the person was, the worse their health fared, which is to be expected when you consider that:
- Anxiety has been linked to thickening of your arteries, a 52 percent increase in cardiovascular disease,7 migraines8 and tumor metastases9
- Stress hormones have been linked to heart disease
- Pessimism has been linked to chronic inflammation
Being Neurotic May Double Your Risk of Alzheimer's
As mentioned earlier, being chronically anxious or fearful can also have neurological consequences. Previous research has linked neurotic characteristics, which also include envy, jealousy and loneliness, to a heightened risk for Alzheimer's disease.
In this 38-year-long study,10 women who scored highest on a test for neuroticism were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's than women with the lowest scores.
Introverts had a higher degree of long-term distress, and women who were both the most neurotic and the most introverted had the highest risk of Alzheimer's disease of all.
The connection between neuroticism and Alzheimer's makes sense when you consider that this type of personality tends to be embroiled in chronic stress.
Studies have found compelling links between chronic stress and a wide variety of health issues, including brain function. For example, animal research11 has shown that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.
Such findings indicate that your physical response to stress may be a factor that influences how your brain ages over time.
Addressing Anxiety, Pessimism and Neurotic Tendencies Is Important for Optimal Health
If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, I would strongly encourage you to take the necessary steps to address your anxiety, fear, pessimism or other neurotic tendencies.
Over time, these kinds of negative thoughts and emotions can do a great deal of harm, not to mention sap you of happiness and life satisfaction. As cases of heart disease and Alzheimer's continue to rise, the finding that your thoughts and emotions can play such an important role is actually good news.
If you tend to worry or fret excessively, you can actually do something about it and eliminate that unnecessary risk. Strategies that have a high degree of success include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Mindfulness training
- Breathing exercises
- Emotional freedom techniques (EFT)
Breathing Exercise to Quell Panic Attacks and Anxiety
A breathing exercise taught by Patrick McKeown, a leading Buteyko Breathing expert, which can help quell anxiety is summarized below. This sequence helps retain and gently accumulate CO2, leading to calmer breathing and reduced anxiety. In other words, the urge to breathe will decline as you go into a more relaxed state.
- Take a small breath into your nose, a small breath out; hold your nose for five seconds in order to hold your breath, and then release to resume breathing.
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds.
- Repeat the sequence several more times: small breath in through your nose, small breath out; hold your breath for five seconds, then let go and breathe normally for 10 seconds.
McKeown has also written a book specifically aimed at the treatment of anxiety through optimal breathing, called "Anxiety Free: Stop Worrying and Quieten Your Mind — Featuring the Buteyko Breathing Method and Mindfulness," which can be found on Amazon.com.12 ButeykoClinic.com also offers a one-hour online course and an audio version of the book, along with several free chapters13 and accompanying videos.14
EFT Has Documented Benefits for Stress and Anxiety
My favorite strategy for addressing negative emotions and thought patterns of all kinds is EFT, a form of energy psychology that can quite literally reprogram your body's reactions to stress. This includes both real and imagined stressors, both of which can be significant sources of fear and anxiety.
EFT bears some similarity to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations.
Research has shown that EFT significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.
Following the publication of a 2012 review15,16 in the American Psychological Association's journal Review of General Psychology — which assessed 18 randomized controlled trials showing strong benefits — and a landmark study17 on EFT for war veterans suffering from traumatic stress in 2013, EFT is moving closer to meeting the criteria for an "evidence-based treatment."
It's particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.18,19 EFT has also been scientifically shown to lower cortisol levels,20 which are elevated when you're stressed or anxious.
Tapping for Diagnosis Beliefs
In the video above, EFT therapist Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for diagnosis beliefs. This particular demonstration approaches it from the angle of addressing your emotions about a particular diagnosis — such as believing you cannot get better because your doctor said you'll never improve — but you can easily modify it to address just about any belief or feeling you have about your health, whether you've been given a diagnosis or received a clean bill of health yet still fear there's something wrong.
Please keep in mind that while anyone can learn to do EFT at home, self-treatment for serious issues like persistent anxiety is not recommended. For serious or complex issues, you need someone to guide you through the process. That said, the more you tap, the more skilled you'll become.
Just recognize that if you have a serious anxiety issue and don't receive any benefit from self-therapy, that it doesn't mean that EFT is useless. It means you need to seek an expert professional consultation. It takes many years of training to develop the skills to become an effective therapist, so if one doesn't work, seek out another. When done with a truly skilled therapist, EFT is without a doubt the most effective clinical strategy I have ever used for anxiety.