- Seeking reassurance about health concerns from loved ones and doctors is considered a safety behavior.
- Safety behaviors may reduce anxiety in the short term but increase it over the long term.
- The momentary reassurance gained from safety behaviors is short-lived—the anxiety always returns with a vengeance.
- CBT can interrupt this process by helping you to refrain from using safety behaviors to reduce your health anxiety.
If you have health anxiety, you likely seek reassurance about your health-related concerns from doctors and/or loved ones. In other words, you repeatedly seek the simple, reassuring message that there is nothing wrong with your health. Do you think this mole looks suspicious? Should I be worried about this headache?
The not-so-pretty picture of reassurance-seeking
Reassurance-seeking can take on a variety of forms. You might ask your significant other, friends, or family members whether they think a given symptom is concerning. You might head on down to the ole emergency room or urgent care or frequent your primary care physician’s office. You might rely on medical tests or physical examinations in order to receive reassurance from medical staff that the results of such tests show no concerns. In all of these situations, you likely feel a sigh of relief when you are told not to worry and that your health is just fine.
Relief is here today, gone tomorrow.
Great, so I feel relieved. Then, why is this problematic? Because the relief you experience from reassurance-seeking is short-lived. Before long, you begin to worry again as either that symptom never went away, or a new symptom or bodily sensation pops up. In fact, studies show that people with health anxiety experience a calming effect immediately after being reassured, but the health anxiety can return as soon as within 24 hours. Given the effort you likely put into this reassurance-seeking, that is not a big payout!
But let me explain why reassurance seeking is short-lived. No matter how many loved ones or doctors you talk to, no matter how many physical exams and tests you have done, there is no way to be 100 percent certain that you don’t have a health issue. After all, it is possible that a medical test isn’t accurate or that a doctor could miss something. Even though this is highly improbable, that sliver of possibility is enough to make you feel anxious. In addition, even if you trust the results from a test or a doctor’s conclusion based on a physical exam, a new symptom or bodily sensation could pop up, and BAM, you are back to square one again.
How CBT can help
Because of all of this, CBT therapists use cognitive restructuring and behavioral strategies to help you reframe the way you see your health and uncertainty in general. Some of the cognitive strategies used include examining the probabilities of health issues, challenging thinking errors, and reshaping dysfunctional beliefs about health and illness. Behavioral strategies include exposure exercises and behavioral experiments to help you refrain from engaging in reassurance-seeking behaviors and learning through experience that you don’t need to incessantly seek reassurance from others to maintain good health and ensure your safety.