Hypochondria. It’s a word with not many positive connotations. It’s a word we use to describe kids who frequently bust out the crocodile tears or over-dramatic people who are looking for attention for the most minor of inconveniences. But for a lot of folks – including me – hypochondria, also known as health anxiety, can be debilitating.
Photo by Hayley Seibel on Unsplash
A little back story…
I never used to have health anxiety. In fact, I never used to have any anxiety. But I’ve wrote about my own anxiety journey enough on this blog to not need to re-hash it again. So if you want the full story, check out this post. And health wise, I’ve been incredibly lucky. No serious physical health problems in my 26 years on this planet.
And before I continue, I just want to say how incredibly grateful I am for that.
But I grew up being aware of the importance of your health but not being consumed by it. Then as a teenager, I did a LOT of P.E in school, went to the gym and played sports. I was active and healthy. Still no physical (or mental) conditions to concern myself over.
But once my generalised anxiety disorder started, things began to unravel. Not at first. I was so consumed by my anxiety and this new life I was now miserably living that my physical health took a back seat. I lost loads of weight, I gained loads of weight, never exercised or ate properly.
What about now?
But over the last couple of years, health anxiety has started creeping in. Occasionally and first. I’d get fixated on something for a while. Do a bit of a Google search but then let it go. However it’s just got worse and worse and now, it can take over my life.
The last couple of months have been especially bad. And the funny thing is, I never really REALIZED I had health anxiety until now. Even though it’s evident that it’s been bubbling up under the surface for years now. I hopped onto the NHS website on the health anxiety page and it was basically a check list of all the things I’ve been doing daily for weeks.
So what is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is basically excessive worrying about getting ill or being ill that it starts to take over your life.
And it’s important to remember here that worrying about your health doesn’t mean you have health anxiety. Most of us will have health scares. If we find or feel something that isn’t normal for us, get test results back which aren’t positive or have a worrying symptom. That’s normal.
But health anxiety isn’t normal. And some symptoms of health anxiety include:
– Constantly worrying about your health
– Constantly checking your body for signs of something wrong
– Always asking other people for reassurance
– Obsessively searching for medical advice online
– Avoiding anything to do with medical / illness such as on TV and in films
Apart from the last point, I can quite easily tick all those off. And I didn’t quite realise how abnormal it was until I learnt that.
How does it affect me?
Well, it affects me pretty much how it says above. But personally, when I’m going through a particularly bad phase of health anxiety, I’ll check certain areas of my body every day – multiple times a day. Even if I know what they feel like or I know they don’t feel any different to how they did a week or a month ago.
Sometimes the checking gets so excessive that I’ll literally bruise myself or cause a lot of pain to myself. Not intentionally but just through the sheer AMOUNT of prodding and poking of such sensitive areas that I’m doing.
Then sometimes, if I do cause harm and pain to myself, I’ll then worry the next day if the pain is something serious. Even though I know I caused it myself.
Then when I get fixated on something, I’ll spend literally hours on Google, searching for and reading everything I can find on similar things. Anything from the NHS website, to forums, to news reports. I’ll read dozens and dozens of forum threads from people talking about something similar (or sometimes, not even that similar!)
Then as a subsequent result of all of this, I sometimes can’t function because it’s all that’s on my mind. I feel like I can’t go about my normal activities because health anxiety is always at the back of my mind. I’ll be watching a YouTube video thinking, “that was good… now I wonder if I have cancer?”
And speaking of YouTube, I’ve now also found myself obsessively watching videos of people’s health diagnosis, their symptoms and things like that.
And the worst thing?
As well as the constant anxiety, the constant prodding and poking and subsequent pain and the life ruining condition, the worst thing about health anxiety is that you feel like a COMPLETE ASSHOLE because there are people out there ACTUALLY going through what you’re worrying unnecessarily about.
All that time you’ve spent prodding and Googling and worrying, there are people going through actual treatments, getting actual diagnosis. And mate, it makes you feel like such a c***.
How can you help yourself?
If the above sounds like you, then first of all, I’m so sorry. Anxiety is crap as it is but health anxiety can be all consuming, all debilitating and life ruining. A couple of Sundays ago, I literally laid in bed and stared at the wall all day long because I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.
And honestly? I’ve not got to the bottom of this question yet. I definitely don’t have all the answers. However the NHS website suggests a few handy things for coping with health anxiety:
– Keeping a diary of all the times you check, ask for reassurance or look online for information
– And then try and gradually reduce how often you do these things
– Create a chart of 2 columns, first writing down your worries (whatever they are and however silly they may seem), then challenging those thoughts in the second column with more balanced and reasonable explanations. E.g, “I’m worried about headaches”, “Headaches can be a sign of stress”.
– Keep busy and occupied when you feel the urges to check come up
– Using relaxation techniques
You know I love Yoga already, so personally I’ve found putting a lot of energy into Yoga really helpful. It helps me relax and breathe and calm down. I also tried the chart thing and I’ve found that quite useful so far too.
But ultimately, it’s still a pretty big problem.
I’m not too sure to be honest. I just wanted to write this post and get my thoughts down (which actually, is another thing that really helps!) whilst I’m in the midst of my health anxiety. I asked on Twitter whether anyone would like this post and I was really surprised with how many people commented saying they suffer with the same thing.
A few days after this post was written, I went to see the nurse and quite literally, broke down in her office about my health anxiety. She immediately made me an appointment with the doctor that same day to discuss it (as well as my general anxiety too) and I’ve since been put on medication and referred back to therapy.
I really couldn’t have asked for better care from my local GP practice and felt like someone genuinely cared and for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was getting my life together. I still suffer with health anxiety but I’m taking proactive steps to help myself.
It’s much more common than I thought. Could that be the nature of today’s society? When everything is online, everyone’s illness and story is only a YouTube video away? When there’s constant articles cropping up telling us that tomato ketchup causes cancer or owning a fish could lead to a stroke?