9 Things I Wish I'd Known About Health Anxiety
There’s always the constant concern that one day I’ll be worrying about something that’s actually happening.
1. Health anxiety is confusing, frustrating, and terrifying.
During a typical day for me, it will cross my mind numerous times that I have a horrible illness. Headaches and twinges must mean a brain tumour, my forgetfulness must be Alzheimer’s (I’m 25 years old), and the occasional joint pain is surely arthritis, or the big one – cancer.
I, along with approximately 10% of the UK population, suffer with health anxiety, often referred to as hypochondria (or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder). So I spend a significant amount of my life trying to convince myself that I’m not unwell or even dying. The constant questions going around in my head can be so contradictory, confusing, and terrifying that I can completely lose myself.
Here’s a standard thought process: “I have a minor headache. It’s not unbearable, but it doesn’t feel like a normal headache. WHY does it feel different? It could be something terrible. It probably is something terrible. I think I have a tumour. Or an aneurism.”
Rationalising with yourself is just as baffling.
“It’s probably nothing. It’s all in my head, nothing to worry about. But what if it is something to worry about? What if this one time, I’m actually right?”
What’s even more confusing is that tension headaches, nausea, and chest pains are all potential manifestations of anxiety. But it can be hard to differentiate them from other health risks when the very thing I'm anxious about is the possibility that there's something terribly wrong with me.
2. Just because the symptoms aren't attached to the condition you're afraid of, that doesn't mean you're not in very real, and often physical, distress.
When you’re constantly worrying about your health, you can’t help but notice every tiny change in your body. Every twinge, ache, bruise, bump, or sting – any body sensation, really – amounts to hours of worrying and hysteria.
Hysteria leads to panic attacks, and suddenly I’m freaking out about that one niggling symptom I can’t get out of my head. I can’t catch my breath, my heart’s beating so fast, and my arms and legs start tingling – and because I’m constantly fearing the worst, I of course assume I’m having a heart attack, or a stroke, or something else equally life-threatening.
On one occasion I ended up in A&E, hooked up to an ECG with relentless chest pains, because I just couldn’t fathom the idea that my physical symptoms were caused by my anxiety. It was scary and very real, and by the time I was on my way home (declared perfectly healthy), it felt pretty embarrassing, too.
3. Trying to ease your anxiety with research can actually make it worse.
I realised face-to-face help was my only option after a few disastrous run-ins with the NHS symptom checker.
One little google can lead to catastrophic results when I’ve already decided I’m at death’s door – I’ve lost count of the number of times I've diagnosed myself with an array of awful illnesses.
TV campaigns certainly aren’t my friend either. Cancer, stroke, and heart attack awareness ads all fuelled my health obsession. The only way I could put my mind at ease for any length of time was to visit a doctor for reassurance.
4. But going to the doctor can be stressful too.
The quelling of my anxiety depended on my seeing a doctor – I was in there almost every week for one thing or another. Nose bleeds, headaches, back pain, chest pain…even the smallest symptoms would send me into a panic. I’ve often thought a full-body scan wouldn’t be unreasonable.
On one occasion, my irrational attempts to convince my GP that the occasional unexplained twinges in my head warranted at least a blood test for my peace of mind were met with total disapproval. I was told the dreaded “It’s all in your head, just forget about it.” I changed doctors after that.
Perseverance does pay off – eventually I found a doctor who took the time to ask why I was so consumed by my health worries. She looked at that as an issue in itself, rather than just addressing whatever ailment I’d decided I’d contracted that day and sending me on my way. I think that was the moment I realised my behaviour wasn’t normal.
That said, the NHS mental health system unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired, and while I was referred to a counsellor who did a quick telephone assessment with me and left it at that, I’ve ultimately chosen to deal with my health anxiety by myself.
5. It's not rational, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel real.
There are so many irrational things that I’ve done in moments of sheer panic that, on reflection, I either deeply regret or can’t quite believe. Most of them I can laugh at now, but I remember feeling so ashamed of myself at the time. (That’s the thing with being a worrier – you don’t just worry about yourself, but about how you affect others too.)
At the height of my anxiety, I was living away at university. At the time, I was so utterly convinced that I would have a heart attack and die in my sleep that I insisted my boyfriend needed to ring me to wake me up in the morning, to check I was OK. Long story short, I left my phone on silent and didn’t hear his numerous calls – only to wake hours later to find that he’d finally thought the worst and was frantically calling my teachers and housemates to see if I had, like I kept insisting I was going to, died.
The fact I’d put my always reassuring, always rational, and always patient boyfriend through such unnecessary worry was too much to bear. Not to mention my secret was finally out – I was so embarrassed and ashamed of my behaviour that I didn’t want anyone to know about it, but by then panicked phone calls had been exchanged between many of my loved ones, and I had to face up to my problem.
6. It can be really hard on relationships.
Of course, the strain of that level of anxiety takes its toll. I remember being too scared to even hug my boyfriend at one point because I was so convinced my (imaginary) aneurism would burst. Try explaining that to someone who doesn’t have an anxious bone in their body.
It’s so hard to articulate to someone who’s never experienced it. But, aside from the occasional wobble, we’ve discovered ways to deal with my anxiety.
On some occasions I prefer to deal with my anxiety and ride the storm by myself, while other times I prefer to talk about it, even make jokes about it. And while for a long time I was ashamed of revealing my anxiety to others, I was always very frank about my irrational fears with my boyfriend. It’s hugely important, and helpful, to me that I’ve never felt judged or labelled by him – that I’m more than my mental health issues. Even if he does, understandably, find it hard to relate to at times.
In fact, I’m marrying him next year. He’s most certainly a keeper.
7. Labels can be damaging.
I’ve read up on the various terms (somatic symptom disorder, hypochondria, illness anxiety disorder, and health anxiety) that health journals and organisations use to describe different versions of the mental health condition I have. From a sufferer’s perspective, it’s very hard to distinguish between them all. Some refer to actual physical symptoms, others refer to symptoms that are only in the mind.
I would wholeheartedly argue that more often than not there’s a mixture of both. Yes, sometimes it’s all in my head. Other times the symptoms are very real and hard to ignore.
The hypochondriac label is particularly over-used. I’ll be honest, I’m totally guilty of referring to myself as a hypochondriac. I use it as a bit of a blasé defence mechanism, a way of laughing it off. Asking for the morning off work to go to the doctors for the second time that month, for example: “I’m sure it’s nothing, I just want to get it checked out. I’m just such a hypochondriac!” As if it’s just a funny quirk of mine. It’s certainly not – but I do think with the stigma surrounding mental health it’s easy to resort to humour as a defence or a way of explaining it to others. Not many people are aware of health anxiety or the impact it has on people.
8. Routine really helps.
I can’t tell you how much finding a job I loved and settling into an everyday routine helped me. The distraction of having real responsibility, a commute, and something to drive all my energy into did wonders for taking my mind off things.
Exercise, healthy food choices, cutting back on caffeine, and choosing to read instead of watching lots of TV were all things I incorporated into my daily life in a bid to make myself better. Making those choices not only made me feel healthier but had a mental effect, too. My anxiety often makes me feel like I've lost all control, and making these small decisions for myself makes me feel like I've won some back.
Surrounding myself with people who aren't consumed with worry also helps immensely. Looking back on the nights when I’d lock myself away in my room so I could just lie in bed and worry, it just made things worse – if you find you’re suffering with health anxiety, try taking yourself out of the situation for a while. Meet a friend, spend time with your family. You don’t have to talk about it. In fact, sometimes it’s nice not to talk about it at all.
9. The more you accept yourself, the easier it is to take care of yourself.
There will be people who think you’ve officially gone crazy. Even I think I’m a little crazy sometimes. Health anxiety is a very difficult thing to get my own head around as a sufferer, let alone for some outsiders looking in.
In my circumstances, when I finally started talking to people other than my doctors, I realised that mental health problems were so much more common than I ever knew. Family members and close friends of mine had also battled anxiety and depression, and they were living to tell the tale – so hopefully I could, too.
Not being ashamed of how I felt was a big step. When people started to tell me about their own experiences with anxiety, I slowly became more accustomed to being honest about mine. Now, it’s just something I accept about myself. It’s never gone away, but it’s certainly much more under control.
Health anxiety takes over your life in a way that makes you think the worst is around every corner. But what I’ve very recently realised is, if you’re constantly scared of dying, you’re not living anyway.
Anxiety affects different people in different ways, and BuzzFeed articles are for general information only. If you suspect you are suffering with health anxiety or a similar condition, speak to a GP.
You can find resources on health anxiety at AnxietyUK.