Family members have considerable influence on any one among them who is troubled by health anxiety, or any other emotional problem, for that matter. They can make things better, or worse.
The following are guidelines for friends and family to follow in coping with someone troubled by health anxiety.
If telling health worriers that they look a little better does not comfort them, telling them that they look a little worse is certainly not a good idea! If you yourself are a health worrier, you may be able to imagine catastrophes that have not yet occurred to them. Do not suggest these to them. Health worriers are much more inclined by point of view to believe in bad news than good. It is best not to comment one way or the other.
Not counting the familiar poisons produced by mushrooms and many other plants, ordinary foods, including vegetables, which are on balance good for us, have carcinogens in amounts greatly exceeding those routinely added to foods in the form of preservatives. Preservatives are not in general a reason to avoid vegetables. Each food product should be judged on its own merits. It is reasonable to avoid those, natural or not, whose effectiveness and whose dangers have not been determined.
There is also sold to the public a class of presumably medicinal agents which are known, as well as anything can be known, to be ineffective. Among them are homeopathic drugs which are based, literally, on a kind of magic and whose formulation is contrary to fundamental scientific principles.
Do not conclude on the basis of what you have read in newspapers that certain drugs are dangerous or better than or worse than other drugs. Do not offer these ill-considered opinions to the health worrier, who is likely to react in an exaggerated manner to the drug, or to refuse it altogether at a time when taking it may be important, even critical. Similarly, do not venture negative opinions on certain treatment modalities such as electric shock therapy or other procedures such as Caesarean section as if they are never indicated no matter what the circumstances. Do not repeat absurd generalizations such as “surgeons always like to cut.” Or “Psychiatrists want to keep you in therapy forever.” They make health worriers more afraid of seeking medical help and more distrusting of doctors than they are already.
Do not find fault with the health worrier’s current physician unless you have good reason. If someone develops an illness that is not responding to treatment, it is always reasonable to suggest a second opinion, but do not undermine treatment by suggesting that the health worrier should take less medicine than that which was prescribed, or more, or some other medicine in addition.
In short, make sure you do not complicate treatment by interfering with it. A typical board-certified internist has had four years of medical schooling, four years of additional specialized training and a minimum of two years experience dealing with all the intricacies of medical illness. No lay person can pretend to such well-founded judgment. Do not report to the health-worrier interesting anecdotes of medical catastrophes that have come to your attention. Health worriers are suggestible. They do not need much encouragement to begin wondering whether some rare calamity can happen to them too. Keep in mind that unusual events are just that, unusual. Make that point if you are going to tell such stories.
Try not to draw conclusions from random events in the neighborhood. An illness in a neighbor need not strike in your family even if you ate in the same restaurant or slept over in the neighbor’s home. If two other neighbors developed leukemia, it does not mean that there is some influence-toxic waste, perhaps, or electromagnetic waves from high-tension wires- that is likely to affect someone in your family. Do not promote these rumors. Outbreaks of illness occur in communities from time to time purely as statistical quirks with no other underlying cause.
Do not repeat health tips (warnings) you heard from your grandmother. These old-wives’ tales:
“You’ll get cramps if you swim right after eating lunch.”
“You’ll get sick if you stay up too late studying for an exam.”
“You’ll get sick if you read too much.”
…and countless others add up to the conclusion that many ordinary activities endanger health. This is a message that health worriers have already learned only too well. Excerpted from "Worried Sick?" (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask questions at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/