Practical tips for being there when someone is struggling with obsessive and often irrational worry around their health

When a loved one is struggling with their mental health, many of us will want to do as much as we can to support them – and doing so is vitally important. But when it comes to supporting someone with health anxiety, there are a plethora of things to consider.

“It can be very difficult to support somebody with health anxiety,” says Dr Sophie Gwinnett, a clinical psychologist. “At times, their fears might seem irrational or illogical, and this might make you feel frustrated, stressed, or worried.”

So, how can you navigate conversations, and offer your loved one the best support you can? Here, with help from Dr Gwinnett, we explore five tips.

1. Listen and talk

One of the first hurdles we can come up against when trying to be there for someone is thinking that we need to have all the answers. This is particularly difficult when considering health anxiety, as you might feel as though you need to have a good understanding of the problems your loved one is worried about. But this isn’t the case – so often, just listening is the best thing you can do.

“Allowing them to share their fears while you provide a listening, supportive ear can help,” says Dr Gwinnett. “Don’t force them to talk, but be available should they approach you for support.”

2. Set boundaries

“While listening is helpful, conversations about health anxiety can sometimes become intrusive and repetitive,” Dr Gwinnett says. “In this case, lots of talking and reassurance may be counterproductive.

“If your loved one is asking you to check symptoms frequently, or conversations about health anxiety are dominating most of your time together, suggest having a specific time of day which is dedicated to discussing their fears.”

Setting boundaries can be a tough thing to do, especially if you know that you still want to be there for them in some capacity. Take some time to think about what you reasonably can and can’t support them with, and understand that it’s OK to take these actions.

3. Be accepting of their thoughts and emotions

Can you think back to a time where you were experiencing anxiety? How real did those worried feelings seem to you? Probably very real. Health anxiety is just the same, and so the last thing you should do is try to downplay what they’re going through.

“No matter how absurd or irrational the beliefs seem to you, don’t dismiss their fears (‘That’s silly, try to cheer up’),” says Dr Gwinnett. “Accept that your loved one is genuinely battling with fears that feel very real to them (try, ‘I can see how overwhelmed you’re feeling; this is really hard for you’).”

4. Support them to continue engaging with what matters

“Avoidance and anxiety often go hand in hand,” Dr Gwinnett explains. “Support your loved one to stay connected with friends and family and to engage in activities that are meaningful to them.”

It’s easy to let anxiety spiral out of control, consuming every waking thought. And so taking steps to help your loved one is a really great practical way to support them. What activities do they find joy in? Could you take part in them together?

5. Seek support for yourself

“It can be difficult to support someone who is experiencing health anxiety and their fear and worry can impact your mood, too,” adds Dr Gwinnett. “Do seek support for yourself from trusted friends or a GP.”

Ultimately, if you’re not taking care of yourself, you won’t be in the best position to take care of someone else, which is why looking after your own wellbeing is a vital part of supporting a loved one with health anxiety. So, remember: set boundaries, listen to your needs, and reach out to someone you trust if you need more support.

What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is when you excessively worry that you're ill, or about getting ill, to the point where it intrudes into the rest of your life. According to the NHS, signs include:
• Constantly worrying about your health.
• Frequently checking your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling, or pain.
• Always asking people for reassurance that you're not ill.
• Worrying that a doctor or medical tests may have missed something.
• Obsessively looking at health information on the internet, or in the media.
• Avoiding anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes.
• Acting as if you were ill.

If you're personally struggling with health anxiety, or need further advice on how to support someone who is, visit Counselling Directory for a wealth of articles and professionals who could help.