Turn on your TV or hop online and you’ll likely see them: Frightening stats about health risks. You could be at risk for catching the flu, getting food poisoning, developing diabetes or high blood pressure, even developing cancer. It’s enough to make your head spin and your anxiety spike.
But should you worry?
While it’s important to stay informed of your health risks, the next time you hear a frightening bit of health news — whether that’s a family member with a genetic disease or a disease outbreak — the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends you stay calm and keep these things in mind:
Being at risk isn’t a guarantee. Just because you’re at risk for developing something doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. It’s just a possibility. When you hear of a new health risk, ask yourself:
- Does this news affect a lot of people? A few? Does it affect me?
- Can I trust the source of this information?
- At what times does this apply to me? During flu season? During travel? Pregnancy?
- How certain is the risk?
Understand your risk factors. These include your age, sex, lifestyle and family history. You can’t change some risk factors like your age, genes or family history, but others like lifestyle, diet and physical activity you can control.
Consider the statistics. When you hear about a risk, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about your own risk. But, before you do, stop and think about the types of people being described. The NIH notes, “If they’re not similar to you, or if the category is very broad, then your risks may be different.”
Think of it this way: A statement like, “More than half of Americans over age 45 will eventually develop heart disease” uses information on statistical averages over the entire population of the United States. If you’re younger than 45, your risk is much lower. However your risk increases if you smoke or have high blood pressure or diabetes. But you can lower your risk with diet changes and plenty of exercise.
Ways to Cope with Health Anxiety
If you’re at risk for a condition or you’re experiencing anxiety over some health news, you can take control of the situation. Here’s how:
Remember those risk factors: You can decide how to take action by learning about your risk factors, which ones you can and can’t control and how they can affect you.
Educate yourself: If you have concerns about a disease, do your research. But make sure you consult credible health organizations like the NIH, for example.
Talk to your doctor: Make a list of your questions and concerns before your appointment and if you don’t understand something, ask your doctor before leaving.
Create a support team: If you develop a disease, create a support team to help you with research, doctor appointments and anything else you might need. You also may want to contact a specialist or join a support group.
Though it’s easy to become anxious about scary health statistics, knowing your own risk factors, who’s affected and doing your research can help keep your anxiety in check.