Over the past few years, I’ve developed some level of health anxiety. I’m almost constantly concerned or convinced that I have some sort of illness or health problem. It isn’t exactly hypochondria, but it is similar. To be diagnosed with hypochondria, you have to be experiencing its symptoms for over six months, and it’s usually concerning serious or terminal illnesses. The kind of anxiety I have is more short-term and can be about ailments big or small. I am anxious about symptoms for days or weeks at a time, but it is an almost constant flow of different things I concern myself with.
I personally believe that everyone will experience things differently, including health anxiety. My experience with health anxiety may be more or less severe than others. Others may cope with their anxiety differently. What matters is that all forms and degrees of anxiety are valid.
I’m lucky enough to say that I don’t experience health anxiety with absolutely everything, as I know others do. I’ve gotten colds and headaches far too often for it to convince my brain that something could be seriously wrong. But any other symptoms or feelings that are out of the ordinary, even a little bit, can send my mind down a spiral. The best way to describe the health anxiety I experience is an over-arching feeling of dread and fear, mixed with obsessions and speculations about the smallest things.
The Vicious Cycle of Health Anxiety
Let me walk you through a typical cycle of my health anxiety. For example, a while ago I had a few mosquito bites. At first, I put on a facade for myself, telling myself it isn’t a big deal. (Which, realistically, it isn’t). If I’m lucky, that will continue long enough for whatever is bothering me to go away. If I’m not, like in this case, I start to Google symptoms. Yes, this is bad. Please, if you can resist, try not to do this. For me, there’s this just this unrelenting urge to pull up that damn search engine.
So, I checked for symptoms of West Nile Virus, convinced myself I was feeling those, then checked if mosquitos in my area were found to be infected (they were). In the process, I saw some pictures of really awful looking bug bites, and somehow the red spots on my leg then appeared to be massive and oozing some strange coloured fluid. (They weren’t). I remembered the time frame for when symptoms of the virus should show up, cleared my search history from the past hour, and sat down to scratch my mosquito bites that were definitely a lot itchier than they were an hour ago.
The worst possible outcome is always in the back of my mind for that symptom window, and maybe I even dive back into Google a couple times. I constantly seek reassurance from my family, even though I usually remain anxious no matter what they say. I will hone in on whatever part of my body is bothering me, and it becomes all I can focus on. This usually doesn’t help. In the case of my mosquito bites, my constant itching and touching only made them look and feel worse, which in turn led me to believe I had some terrible mosquito-bourne illness.
If it’s really bad, I might start to get physical symptoms of anxiety- chest tightness, increased heart rate, and so on. Then, I convince myself that those are symptoms of whatever ailment I’m convinced I have. I’m never really completely at peace with my body and health. I think that’s the worst part of the health anxiety I experience. The sudden, all-consuming panic is scary, but the lingering fear and “what-ifs” can follow me around for quite some time.
Eventually, whatever symptoms I’m having usually fade away, or they get bad enough that I go to the doctor. In case you’re wondering about the mosquito bites, they faded away in a few weeks and nothing happened. All of that anxiety, seemingly for nothing. It truly is a vicious cycle.
Other Effects of My Health Anxiety
My health anxiety also extends to food allergies. My older brother is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, so my whole life, I’ve been taught to avoid them, and by extension, fear them. I myself have no allergies, I was tested by an allergist when I was much younger. However, I can only think of a couple instances where I’ve consumed peanuts or tree nuts, and I’ve been terrified every time. If I ever eat something that might have nuts in it, I obsess over anything my body does until the 4-hour symptom window for an allergic reaction is over.
I still avoid nuts, I will turn down any food I’m unsure of and delicious looking baked goods, even though I technically have no reason to. I’m planning to get tested again, but I know it won’t really solve anything. That fear ingrained into my mind from a young age will probably never go away. I feel silly whenever I explain this to anyone, when they ask “but you’re not allergic, right?” No, I’m not. But I’m illogically terrified that I am.
It also extends beyond nuts. After hearing horror stories about people having terrible reactions to food they didn’t know they were allergic too, I started to become anxious when trying any new food. How do I know that I’m not allergic unless I’ve had it before? Since developing this fear, I usually don’t try any new food, unless I’m in a safe situation where extra Epi-Pens are around.
There is also a kind of shame associated with my health anxiety. I sometimes feel like I don’t deserve to be scared and worried because there are people who actually have these terrible diseases or conditions, and have legitimate reasons to worry about their health! But I just can’t shake it. It’s actually helped me understand other mental illnesses better, like generalized anxiety and OCD. You can’t “just stop thinking about it”. Thinking happy thoughts can’t stop it from taking over your life. And it’s taken me a while to realize this, but it isn’t my fault for being this way. I shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about the way I am.
There are really only three things that have helped me cope with my health anxiety. The first one is quite obvious: STOP GOOGLING. I don’t always follow this advice, but when I do, I am so much less likely to go down that awful spiral of anxiety. I know it’s tempting. But you will rarely ever attain the reassurance you’re looking for. I can’t think of one time when I’ve left a 30-minute session of intense symptom searching feeling less anxious. Put down your phone. Turn off your wifi if you must. Go to someone you trust and who knows about your health anxiety. They can calm you down and help you rationalize your symptoms.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you’re in any doubt, go to the doctor, a walk-in clinic, the hospital, or any other professional medical care available to you. Believe me, I’ve felt silly and embarrassed for going to the doctor for something as small as a cough. But if you think something might be wrong with your body, that is the only reason you need to go. No one should make you feel bad for being concerned about your health. It is their job to make sure people are ok, and to help people when they aren’t. Plus, people go see a doctor for seemingly small things much more often than you realize. While you’re there, it wouldn’t hurt to mention if you think you have health anxiety or hypochondria. The best thing you can do for yourself is to seek professional help if you think you have any form of anxiety or mental illness.
The last tip I have is not as pleasant. Like with many other things, I’ve found that time is the best cure. It’s kind of a last-ditch effort. If you’ve googled your symptoms, went to the doctor, gotten really worked up, and can’t stop thinking about it, sometimes all you can do is wait it out. Maybe you’ll be able to distract yourself, and maybe you won’t. This method works for me because my anxiety is short-term, and my concern about one particular illness goes away as the symptoms eventually fade. However, if you’re still suffering after a long period of time, go seek medical help again.
If anyone else has had similar experiences to me, please know that it’s ok. You shouldn’t have to feel ashamed, stupid, or crazy about how your mind and body happen to work. You are not defined by your health anxiety, just like you aren’t defined by any other mental illness. If your health anxiety is getting in the way of your daily life, please try to seek professional help. You will be ok!
Here are some links to more information about this topic that have helped me understand what I’m dealing with. There are lots of resources out there with great tips!
Remember that the Fuzzable Team are not trained professionals. We recount our own personal experiences and offer honest, impartial advice and insight, but you should always seek the advice of a medical professional when necessary.