Nobody likes getting sick—but some of us worry about it more than others. Maybe you have an underlying health condition that makes getting sick especially scary. Maybe you tend to be a worrier, and this is just one more thing to worry about. Maybe you get so overwhelmed with the thought of getting sick that you shut down and do nothing at all.
Fear of getting sick can show up in a few different ways:
- Worrying that you are already sick. You might interpret normal, everyday sensations, like feeling tired or having to sneeze, as signs that you are sick. Feeling this way all the time is sometimes called illness anxiety disorder, or hypochondria.
- Fear of contamination. You may be afraid to touch certain surfaces or go certain places for fear that you will become sick. You might take extreme measures to prevent this, like avoiding social events or washing your hands dozens of times a day. When these behaviors interfere with your daily life, it may be a symptom of a phobia or of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
- These symptoms can also be a part of another anxiety disorder. Or, they might not be a sign of any mental health condition—you might just be more worried about illness than most people. You’ll need to decide whether your anxiety is helping keep you safe or just making your life harder.
- It’s also important to take circumstances into account. For example, everyone is sick of hearing about COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean it’s over! This is a serious public health issue, and it’s perfectly reasonable to still feel a bit anxious about it.
Fear and anxiety aren’t always bad. They protect us from danger and help keep us motivated to stay safe. But there comes a point where anxiety can do more harm than good. Here are a few tips about how to manage your anxiety about getting sick:
Be cautious, but don’t jump to conclusions
If you think you may already be sick, your first instinct might be to start googling your symptoms. The internet can be a great source of information… But it is also easy to convince yourself that you have something a lot more serious than you really do. (Maybe you’ve seen memes making jokes about this.) Remember that a lot of the scary and “exotic” illnesses you can read about online are extremely rare.
If you feel sick and you’re worried about it, call a doctor. They can make a recommendation about whether it sounds serious enough to come in for a visit. If a doctor tells you it’s not serious and you think they’re wrong, find another doctor and get a second opinion.
Find out what helps and what doesn’t
There are many things you can and should do to avoid getting sick. But it’s also possible to overdo it. Some things aren’t helpful at all. Other things could actually make things worse. Get informed about what’s helpful and what’s harmful. Then, focus your efforts on things that will actually help.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is one of the leading authorities on preventing the spread of disease. They have lots of helpful resources on how to:
- Avoid catching the common cold
- Avoid catching the flu
- Wash your hands properly
- Avoid getting food poisoning
- Prevent the spread of COVID-19
How do you know when you’re overdoing it? In extreme cases (like OCD), some people will wash their hands until their skin is raw, or they will use harsh chemicals like bleach to wash their hands. This kind of thing is harmful and may actually make you more likely to get sick.
More commonly, some people just spend a really long time (for example, more than an hour a day) performing cleaning rituals. Even if this makes you slightly less likely to get sick (and it might not), it can come at a huge psychological cost.
It makes sense to be especially careful if you live with someone who is at higher risk for COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses. Try to find a way to keep yourself and others safe without completely isolating yourself from others, which can lead to loneliness and depression.
Let go of what you can’t control
Once you know what you can do to prevent illness, it’s time to let go of the rest. The truth is, there’s no way to completely guarantee that you won’t get sick. That might be uncomfortable to think about, but it doesn’t have to get in the way of living your life.
A little anxiety can motivate you to do as much as you can to keep yourself healthy—but once you’ve done all you can, continuing to dwell on feelings of fear and anxiety does more harm than good. Do what you can, and try to let go of the rest.
There are many ways to keep your anxiety under control. Here are a few techniques you can try:
- Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation.
- Getting some exercise. (If you’re stuck at home, try finding a home workout video on YouTube. Yoga is a great way to start being active!)
- Writing down your anxious thoughts in a journal. Then write down some positive reframes you can repeat to yourself when you catch yourself getting anxious again.
- Talking to a trusted friend or family member about how you’re feeling.
- Distracting yourself with things you love doing, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or watching something lighthearted on TV.
- Talking to a therapist.
- If you’ve tried many of these things and nothing seems to be working, you can ask a doctor about medication for an anxiety disorder.