Throughout my life, I have always been an anxious person. I was always worrying about different things as a child and, as I got older, the worries changed, but not the frequency. Starting a job during the first week of the national lockdown was strange, and the lockdown gave me a lot of free time to ponder, think and, before I knew it, my brain was full of constant chatter. About six months into 2020, my anxiety took a certain focus. This focus was on my health.
I believe health anxiety gets a pretty bad reputation. I have to admit, before I suffered with it, I didn’t really take it seriously. I think health anxiety sufferers (previously known as hypochondriacs) can have a bit of a reputation as being neurotic, self-obsessed and irrational. However, these stigmas come from misunderstanding the condition.
Health anxiety is the only mental health problem that it’s socially acceptable to roll your eyes at. People don’t really get it, and, if they did, they wouldn’t roll their eyes. This is why people don’t speak about health anxiety. They know that many people won’t understand.
Health anxiety is having a physical fear response to the name of an illness, it’s constantly being inward. It’s never getting a break. It’s avoiding shows, people, books, films due to the medical content. It’s spending an unlimited amount of money on private referrals.
I believe for a lot of people, health anxiety makes them worry about being a burden to their friends and family. I felt ashamed. Conversations I had with friends and family were focused on asking for reassurance about my latest ‘symptom’, and the fact is, anxiety comes with many, so this becomes a kind of vicious cycle.
At my worst, I was googling every single moment I had free time. I would fall asleep at 5 or 6am after googling all night, looking desperately for reassurance but always finding something scary. I would spend hours and hours online, terrified of the what I might discover, focusing intently on every single sensation in my body. I would scan my body constantly for signs of illness and it got so bad that I avoided leaving the house at one point. I seriously didn’t see any way out of it. I was so trapped, conscious and embarrassed of looking crazy. I was being held hostage by my own body. I spoke to a few people about this, but mostly I just put on a brave face and tried to hide it, until it got too much.
So much of my time was dedicated to researching perceived illnesses. So much time I can’t get back. So much time at doctors appointments, seeking reassurance, googling and ruminating. I would perform medical tests on myself at home (ridiculous, I know). I was hyper-vigilant to other people’s symptoms and complaints. I started to believe everyone was sick and of course I was going to get sick too. I was petrified of myself and I no longer trusted my judgement. I wasn’t enjoying my life and I was miserable, feeling like I couldn’t do anything without a constant fear of the next symptom.
After I hit rock bottom, I realised the only way was up. I wasn’t enjoying life. I decided I needed to seek help. I saw a psychologist and was diagnosed with health-related OCD. I turned to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which helped a lot. My therapist helped me to stop blaming myself and start seeing how my behaviours perpetuated my negative thoughts and beliefs about my health. This was a turning point for me and I started my journey of recovery. I was kinder to myself, understanding my health anxiety was a result of trauma and watching a close family member deteriorate with a serious illness. This made me fearful of any illness myself. I am not yet where I want to be, but healing isn’t linear.
I have to remind myself every day that the fear of dying has stopped me from living. I have to almost welcome sensations and symptoms as they are part of life. I read books, watch videos and see a psychologist once a week. I would like to urge whoever is reading this to not be afraid to seek help. It can be scary and it sounds cliche but it really is the first step to living better.
Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.