I used to be a terrible hypochondriac. Really, really bad – having to get therapy bad. I can’t say I am 100% cured now, but I am so much better than I was. I’m not a Doctor, but I hope sharing what I went through might help others.
Hypochondria, or to give it its medical name ‘Health Anxiety‘ affects a huge number of people. Brian Dillon wrote a good article on the condition in The Independent entitled ‘What’s Wrong with Hypochondriacs?‘ Pathological Health Anxiety affects 1-2% of the population and less severe forms are thought to affect around 10%.
This article in the Guardian ‘Health anxiety is not a joke – it could ruin lives‘ rang very true for me. At my worst, it affected all parts of my life. Cyberchondria is also a thing now and I’m as guilty of Googling my symptoms as the next person.
Considering I spent my entire childhood from age 6 to 21 going through hideously intrusive eye operations, it seems strange I never worried about my health It would be my mum who would be freaking out, smoking ciggie after ciggie as I ate chips outside the hospital, missing my mouth because I hadn’t yet got used to only seeing out of one eye.
I can’t really remember when it started. In my 20’s and early 30’s it was a bit of a joke but in my early 40’s it started to border on a bit of a mental illness. I never thought of hypochondria as being a real problem, but it turns out that health anxiety can be quite serious. I can’t promise to offer any instant cures, but I can perhaps share my experiences and pass on some things I did to help get me through it.
I hasten to add I do have relapses still, but generally I’ve managed to stop having great spirals of panic and anxiety about my health.
The first time I remember thinking ‘this isn’t normal’ is in my late 20’s. Looking back I think the trigger was those horrendous AIDS public service videos. Do you remember them?
I watched these adverts with appalled fascination. I would dream about Doctors shaking their head over a blood test, not looking me in the eye as they passed on their dreadful news. It got so bad I ended up sobbing my heart out over a Bridal Barbie in the garishly pink aisle of the local Toys R Us. The reason? Despite having only one sexual partner at the time (with whom I had religiously used condoms) I had convinced myself I had caught AIDS and I was going to die well before I could get anyone to marry me.
‘I’ll never wear a lovely white dreeesssss,’ I wailed to myself, ‘I’ll never walk down that aiissllleeee.’
What a twat!
Later, a dear Irish friend of mine who worked with AIDS victims in central Africa said one of the main early symptoms of the illness was swellings under the jaw. I ended up with bruises from checking myself so often.
You name it, I will have, at some point in my life, convinced myself I was going to die from it.
When I first met Rob he was a bit mystified by my Health Anxiety. Being a scientist, he tended to adopt a fairly practical, logical approach to life, and my bonkers worries about health was something he really didn’t get, though he is always sympathetic.
When something really bad happened, the death of our first son James, my anxiety kicked into a higher gear though, oddly, not until my two subsequent babies were born safe and sound. I kept a lid on things for a good five years. Constantly battling, with bringing up babies and toddlers and dealing with Rob’s depression, I suppose I didn’t have the time to obsess over symptoms. But once the children were off to school that’s when it got really bad.
The next five or so years were punctuated with various obsessions: Stomach Cancer. I saw a Grand Designs episode where a young man died of this and I was horrified. I Googled the symptoms and within a day had developed a chronic stomach ache and convinced myself I was next. Stroke: A constant concern due to those awful F.A.S.T. adverts with that poor woman with the melting face. Heart Attack – you see so many articles online about ‘7 signs that are missed when a woman has a heart attack’. Brain tumour, Malaria, Ovarian cancer, Cervical cancer, Breast cancer – worried about that A LOT – Ebola, MRSA, Sepsis….
I swear to you this is just the tip of the iceberg of what I worry about. You should have seen my browsing history.
Once I walked into town to go shopping with the family and was quiet and snappy the whole way round. What Rob didn’t realise was that I felt really unsteady on my feet. I had convinced myself I had some awful neurological disorder. Multiple Sclerosis? Parkinson’s? I sidled behind shopping aisles where Rob couldn’t see me so I could get out my phone and Google ‘Unbalance – sign of brain problem?’ My palms were sweating with anxiety.
When I got home I realised I was wearing odd boots, one had a heel an inch higher than the other. I felt very relieved and extraordinarily stupid at the same time.
I started to obsess about my heart. I noticed it kept skipping a bit and then racing full tilt. I went to see a cardiologist who did all the tests and I was FINE. I just had a misfiring cell which caused my heart to skip a beat. The racing bit was because noticing the skipped beat threw me into a complete panic
Despite being reassured, on a number of occasions, I still worried. I had many conversations with the GP about chest pains and feeling dizzy, I must have gone to A&E ten or so times. Always the answer was the same. You’re FINE.
If I ever read anything to do with someone getting ill, I would develop the symptoms. I avoided those articles on being diagnosed with a terminal disease, but late at night I would furtively read them and be filled with sick horror.
Googling symptoms took over my life so I wasn’t enjoying living at all. Looking back it was such a waste of time and energy. Once, and only once did it prove worthwhile. In March 2014 I announced this on Facebook:
It’s difficult to explain to people how bad Health Anxiety can be and the horrendous impact it can have. You can’t think about anything else. The chest pains/headache/racing, irregular heart beat/strange numbness/weird aches, become more and more severe. It leads to a full blown panic attack
It’s harder and harder nowadays as we are constantly bombarded with these kinds of images. Facebook endlessly circulates posts to do with cancer, strokes and heart attacks and the Tabloids delight in twisting research in order to make us buy their paper to find out how wine is giving us vitamin B deficiency, or ham is giving our children oesophageal cancer.
I realised I had a problem when the GP mentioned Health Anxiety (the seventh time I booked an appointment with him saying, ‘can you listen to my heart? Does it sound weird? It does, doesn’t it? Am I having a heart attack!?’) He asked me these questions, which are on the NHS website.
‘Do you,’ he said calmly, ‘ever suffer from any of the following?’
- constantly worry about your health
- frequently check your body for signs of illness, such as lumps, tingling or pain
- are always asking people for reassurance that you’re not ill
- worry that your doctor or medical tests may have missed something
- obsessively look at health information on the internet or in the media
- avoid anything to do with serious illness, such as medical TV programmes
- act as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)’
I answered yes to EVERY SINGLE ONE!
Seriously. Every one.
He saw my shock and referred me to a therapist, a great guy who really helped me get back to normal.
I have tried a number of things and only now can I see I have come out into the light after a long time limping through a long, dark, tunnel. The following is what helped me, I can’t promise it will work for everyone, I am not a medical professional! But I know this, if you say yes to a number of those points above, then get help. You can stop this unhealthy obsession.
What You Can Try to Get your Health Anxiety Under Control – It Worked for Me!
- See a therapist. When it got as bad as it did for me, I needed a professional to help lift me out of it. It didn’t cure me completely, but at least pulled me out of the darkness of my constant panic attacks which meant I could start thinking straight.
- Stop obsessing about body parts. I learned some very interesting things about the way the body behaves. If you get into your head you have a fatal disease, adrenalin immediately floods your body causing your heart to race and your muscles to lock up. If you sit still it will just slosh about. Try running up and down some stairs. That helped me get rid of the ‘fight or flight’ chemicals. If you think about a body part it IMMEDIATELY starts feeling weird so you see it as proof there is something wrong with it. Try it now. Think about your nose. Really think about it. Concentrate on the very end of it. It immediately starts feeling odd. Imagine the effect if you start channelling that level of concentration on your head, or your heart or your stomach.
- Don’t Google Your Symptoms. Seriously. Don’t do it. No good will come of it. Think about it: Say you have a sore shoulder. You Google ‘sore shoulder’. What do you think the chances are of support groups, blogs, articles and news reports being created about ‘having a bit of a shoulder twinge which went in a couple of days’? Of course not! The chances of your sore shoulder being something awful and scary are very slim, but the internet isn’t going to reflect that. If you just walked into a town square and talked to everyone who passed, probably a thousand would have had a shoulder twinge that wore off in a week. Maybe one turned out to be cancer. But that’s not what you see when you Google. On Google EVERYTHING is life threatening. .
- Go to Patient, not Google. My GP put me on to this website. Patient is a site which gives sensible, measured and non-alarming information. The best thing is it puts the very rare possible complications right at the bottom, and makes it clear it is rare and not something to usually worry about. And for God’s sake don’t ever read articles entitled, ‘When a pain in the neck is serious’ or ‘Five symptoms you should NEVER IGNORE.’ (You will immediately develop all of them)
- Don’t eat crap. Caffeine, fat, sugar, alcohol, junk food. All of these can make you feel unwell. They can make your heart race, your mouth dry, exhaust you, give you the sweats, cause sluggishness. These symptoms which make you feel like you’re dying. I felt dreadful for a year, convinced I had some awful disease and it turned out my blood sugars were sky high. I felt a hell of a lot better when I cut the carbs out.
- Exercise. Honestly. Trust me on this. When you have Health Anxiety you do what that NHS thing said: ‘act as if you were ill (for example, avoiding physical activities)’ That’s EXACTLY what I did. I convinced myself my body was weak, vulnerable, needed taking care of. I never challenged myself physically because I thought I’d keel over with a heart attack or stroke. I even carried aspirin with me everywhere until I learned that could make things worse if your stroke was caused by a bleed rather than a blockage. Christ! Exercising gives you faith in your body back. I wrote a post about how incredible it was when I jumped on a box. It doesn’t sound like much, but in the old days I convinced myself running up the stairs would probably kill me if I wasn’t careful. Also, it stopped me worrying quite so much about my heart. Although I still get the odd skipped beat, my resting heart rate has gone from around 90 to around 65, which is much healthier.
- Put loud music on and dance to it. Really. Sounds bonkers, but when I could feel the worried thoughts start to creep in, I’d whack on something really REALLY loud, like Pearl Jam or something, and then dance around the room. It would stop my heart jittering about and make it pound properly. I always felt better after that.
- Take Health as a Topic off your Online Feeds. I breathed a sigh of relief when I realised that I could just mute anything to do with health. No more doom laden stories about bacon giving you cancer. No more hyperbolic scaremongering about lack of sleep giving you dementia. Of course it’s fine for people to keep up to date on the latest health research, but if you’re suffering from Health Anxiety it can be a nasty trigger.
- See a Doctor. When I was obsessing about my heart rate, or that my children’s bruises meant they had leukemia, they were very good at using facts and figures to reassure me. Their logical approach did help – not always, I still worried – but it did take the edge off. When googling skin cancer and reading Facebook there was always some horror story about some woman having half her nose cut off due to a skin cancer. Having spent 12 years in the Middle East I was convinced every freckle was a malignant melanoma. When I finally plucked up the courage to go to the Dr to show them all, he gave them a cursory glance and said, ‘yes all fine. Nothing to worry about. Just get them checked every few years or so.’ I was gobsmacked. I was convinced he was going to start chopping bits off me right then and there.
- Recognise it’s a mental health issue. It’s not a joke. You’re not mad. This is something that can be treated. YOUR HEALTH ANXIETY IS NOT YOU! It’s not a personality quirk; if you are careful walking upstairs because you think it will make you have a heart attack and die, then you need to get help as it’s affecting your life. Ditto for ignoring your family because you’ve on the sofa staring at your phone having disappeared down a Google rabbit hole, convinced that twinge in your neck is probably a cervical artery dissection.
- If you find yourself thinking ‘what if?’ do something else. Quickly. Brooding is bad. If you find yourself going down that path, reverse the car of thought quickly. Pull out of the alleyway and go down the sunshiny road. Imagine you’re in that car and you are reversing. Or slam that big steel door on those thoughts and lock it. Whatever analogy works for you. Fill your head with something else. Bake a cake. Marian Keyes wrote a wonderful book Saved by Cake that she said saved her from committing suicide. When she was at her depressive worst, she would think to herself ‘I’ll bake this cake and see how I feel.’ And it got her through. That’s good advice. If you’re obsessively googling skin cancer symptoms, go bake a cake or watch a box set, read a gripping thriller, or have a bath.
- Try and identify the cause. Stress had a massive impact on my Health Anxiety. I finally realised that my worst headaches, and most painful chest pains, occured at the end of term. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if working five, seven day weeks of 15 hours days without a break is contributing to the chest pains? Funny… I never get them during the holidays…’ D’oh! I’m better at managing that now, and delegate more often. It is simply stupid to work so hard you put your health at risk. What’s causing you anxiety? Work it out and get rid of it, or learn to manage it.
- Try a fasting day. I go on about this a lot, but there’s something about going hungry for a day that puts things into perspective. You REALLY enjoy that evening meal, you focus on how your body is dealing with hunger – it’s surprising how well it does handle hunger – and that gives you some faith back in your body. If you think about it, an awful lot of people get to a ripe old age without being struck down by a horrible illness. Trust your body and treat it with healthy things and lots of exercise. Get back inside your body. Don’t treat it like a nuisance you have to worry about whilst living in your head.
I hope you found this useful. Have you ever suffered Health Anxiety? Any tips you would share on how to get through it?
Stay strong and remember your inner warrior, people!