Think how frustrating it is when people don’t believe you about something. Now, imagine not being taken seriously when it comes to your health, when you are convinced you have the symptoms of a serious illness… Here we push through the ‘hype’ around hypochondria, and burst the bubble of health anxiety misconceptions
Who hasn’t woken up with a sore throat, or had a bad headache, and spent ages Googling your symptoms, going down a dangerous rabbit hole of internet diagnosis – discovering that you potentially have a life-threatening condition, and working yourself into a state of panic? Now, imagine feeling like that constantly.
Health anxiety is a serious and often crippling condition, whereby sufferers develop an obsessional preoccupation with the idea that they are currently, or will eventually be, seriously ill with a physical illness.
For someone with health anxiety, not only are you in the scary position of fearing the worst about your health, but you often lack the reassurance of being taken seriously. You may have heard the term ‘hypochondriac’, which has been used for years, as a joke towards those who worry about their health. People don’t see it to be the debilitating illness that it is, and instead deem a person to be ‘overreacting’.
One in 20 Google searches are health-related
But the fact is that many people with health anxiety fear that they are actually going to die from an illness, and this fear can go on to ruin the lives of sufferers. Therefore it’s important that we understand it, and encourage those living with it to seek help.
And to help you do that, here we’ve debunked 10 myths about health anxiety.
1. It’s not just being a ‘hypochondriac’, it is an illness
There is a common misconception that health anxiety is just someone being dramatic or over-exaggerating about their health. But this is not the case. Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder often housed within the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) spectrum – with both sharing a common symptom in reassurance-seeking.
People with health anxiety obsess over an illness, to the point where every little symptom could be a sign of becoming seriously ill – or even dying. Senses become heightened, and while the symptoms are often actually caused by the anxiety itself, the obsession – much like in OCD – reinforces the fear.
To get reassurance, the sufferer may repeatedly go to the doctor and ask for tests. If they don’t get the answer they want – or don’t feel reassured enough – they seek opinion after opinion.
2. It isn’t all in your head – it affects you physically, too
Health anxiety is not just in your mind. A person with a fear of an illness may become convinced they have it due to actual physical symptoms, which are caused by anxiety. This can include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, sweating, shaking, blurred vision, and more. One particular problem with health anxiety is that it can also cause panic attacks – which have, in the past, been likened to the feeling of having a heart attack. Imagine a person with a fear of heart attacks having a panic attack. It’s terrifying, and it can be hard to calm yourself down when you are having – though unknowingly unrelated – physical symptoms to accompany the thoughts.
3. It affects not only your mental health, but your life, too
Health anxiety is known to affect 4-5% of people
Health anxiety can have a massive impact on your life, stopping you from enjoying things you used to love. For instance, a person with health anxiety may stop watching TV shows, films, or reading books that reference bad health. They may even avoid anything to do with physical illness – such as doctors’ surgeries or hospitals. It can be so controlling that people with the disorder may avoid everyday events out of fear of being contaminated and falling ill.
4. It doesn’t just affect millennials
Some people assume it’s only young people who experience health anxiety, with claims that millennials are ‘more delicate’ and therefore complain more. But this isn’t the case. Although it does commonly start when you are younger, people of any age can have health anxiety. It is more common in women, and occurs in about 5% of patients attending a GP surgery – which goes to show just how common it is.
5. You don’t always worry about absolutely everything
There’s an assumption that people with health anxiety worry about anything and everything to do with their health – that they worry about a cold being meningitis, or blurred vision being a brain tumour. And while this is the case for some, others have a chronic health anxiety fear – meaning they have one fear in particular. Cancer is a big one, and others include sepsis and heart attacks. So, instead of panicking about all sorts of illnesses, their ‘symptoms’ tend to scare them into thinking they have their main fear all the time.
Co-hosts of You, Me and The Big C Deborah James and Lauren Mahon joined Happiful’s podcast I am. I have to talk about their experiences of living with cancer, feelings of overwhelm, and health anxiety.
6. It doesn’t always just happen randomly
While yes, for some, health anxiety can just spring up, for others it can come from trauma. For example, someone may have fallen seriously ill and had a near-death experience, and though they have recovered, they live their lives panicking they are going to become ill again. This is a common theme in misdiagnosis – such as if a patient has been misdiagnosed and gone on to become seriously ill, they then feel, when they are unwell in the future, that they need a doctor to look at every little symptom to ensure that nothing can be missed again.
7. It can flare up
Health anxiety is a debilitating illness that can deeply impact lives. But there are times when the anxiety is lessened and more manageable. Professor David Veale, who specialises in health anxiety, says it can come and go depending on various stresses in life.
8. There are other symptoms besides panicking
Intrusive thoughts, which are also a symptom of OCD, can affect people with health anxiety – whether its thoughts about themselves, or people they love, becoming unwell. These thoughts can be incredibly distressing and hard to live with.
9. It doesn’t just affect the sufferer
People think that a person with health anxiety only worries about themselves, but this is not the case. Some people have health anxiety over other people. Parents, in particular, may become obsessed with the idea that their child is getting sick. Instead of checking their own body over and over again for symptoms, they will check their child’s – and book them in to see a doctor or other health professionals more than they would themselves.
10. It is important enough to treat
Sadly, people don’t really take health anxiety seriously, because to many people, it’s just worrying too much about a cold (sigh). But health anxiety is a serious mental illness, and it most certainly is important enough to treat. If you think you may be suffering from health anxiety, it is important that you see your GP and explain to them what is going on, so that you can receive appropriate support. Or find a professional, qualified counsellor by using the search bar below or visiting Counselling Directory.