Have you ever experienced a moment where you felt your heart "skip a beat"? It may give you an unusual sensation in your chest for a few moments and then goes away as quickly as it came. More often than not we get on with our day, barely giving the unusual feeling another thought. However, for some people this unexpected body sensation can trigger off anxiety and worry about the cause or if there are other health problems.
Hypersensitivity to body changes
Anxiety can cause physical body sensations, such as racing heart rate, dizziness, butterflies in the stomach and so on. These feelings are related to the body's natural way of responding to fear and preparing the body to "fight or flight" by moving blood from less important areas such as the fingers to bigger muscles of the leg, which can cause a sensation of pins and needles in the fingers. While this body response can occur in response to feeling anxious or worrying; sometimes the body change comes first and we experience anxiety in response to that sensation.
In the case of the heart "skipping a beat", this unpleasant sensation could lead to anxious thoughts about the cause, such as the possibility of having a heart attack or some other catastrophic health concern. Thinking about having a heart attack could lead to an increase in anxiety feelings, which causes a vicious cycle of experiencing physical sensations and excessive worry about the outcome. The end result is a panic attack - an overwhelming sensation of physical symptoms and anxiety.
Some people become hypersensitive to physical changes in their body - changes in heart rhythm, experiencing pain, aches or tension that have no obvious explanation. Again, this can lead to a vicious cycle of experiencing physical sensations and then worrying about the meaning or outcome. People who experience these symptoms can often perform some sort of 'checking' behaviour such as seeing their doctor, presenting to hospital, or seeking reassurance from their family members. Usually, the reassurance from others that they are not experiencing a significant health condition relieves them of anxiety - in the short term. If these symptoms and patterns of behaviour continue, it can lead to a diagnosis of Health Anxiety.
The reality is that our bodies do many things that we have learnt not to focus on - breathing for example. Sometimes, like a computer program making a random error, our body does something unexpected - our heart suddenly beats irregularly for one or two beats, our muscles twitch, we experience a pain sensation in our gut and so on. People with Health Anxiety misinterpret these sensations as danger - even when they have been checked physically by a doctor. People with Health Anxiety tend to be inwardly focused - always noticing changes in their bodies, rather than focusing externally on what they are doing.
Treatment of Health Anxiety includes a thorough physical check from a doctor and a referral to a psychologist. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is helpful in learning to identify and challenge anxious thoughts, re-evaluating risk levels, and tolerating uncomfortable (but harmless) physical sensations.
At Grove Psychology, our experienced psychologists are able to help you if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety.