What is health anxiety? My experience of living with hypochondria.

“Oh my god, you’re such a hypochondriac.” It’s a sentence we all say and hear on a regular basis, and who can blame us? No one likes to constantly hear someone whinging about small, unimportant problems. Or at least that’s how I used to feel 4 years ago before I was diagnosed with health anxiety. For those of you that haven’t heard of health anxiety (also known as hypochondria) before, here’s a snippet from the NHS website:

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Having lived with health anxiety for 4 years, going through various medications and trying various forms of therapy, the thing that has always stood out to me is how few people actually know about it or acknowledge it as a real condition. I hope that by sharing my personal story I can help deepen some people’s understanding.

Firstly, what causes health anxiety? According to the NHS causes include high levels of stress, an illness or death in the family and family influences during upbringing. It can also be a further symptom of a pre-existing mental health condition such as depression. In my case, it was a mix of two. My symptoms first began to present themselves at a time when two family members were suffering from cancer. Being two of the funniest, most full of life people I knew, it really hit me hard that cancer is a disease that can affect absolutely anyone. In addition to that, I had pre-existing, recurring encounters with depression. These two things combined set off a cycle in my brain that changed and devastated my life.

My symptoms first presented themselves in the form of a headache. I distinctly remember the day that it started because I went into college and could barely concentrate through the fact that it was the worst headache I’d ever had in my life. Obviously I dosed up on paracetamol and ibuprofen expecting it would go away and thinking nothing more of it. However the day went on and on, but the pain didn’t go away, so I went home and decided to have an early night. The next morning I woke up and straight away I could feel that the pain was still there. Then the next morning was the same. Then the next morning. The headache ended up lasting about 6 months. It started to mentally affect me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I became absolutely convinced that I had a brain tumor. I couldn’t go ten minutes without running my hands over my head and feeling for lumps. I convinced myself that I couldn’t see properly. I couldn’t sleep in a room on my own anymore because every night I would cry and shake through panic attacks that would leave my body in agony. If people were talking about illness of any kind, or a family member was ill, or Holby City was playing on the television I would quickly escape the room in a deep state of anxiety. Doctors appointments became a regular occurrence and I soon found myself on an ever-changing concoction of different medications. None of them worked, and I knew that nothing would work unless they could give me a brain scan and prove me wrong once and for all. Reluctantly, they finally offered me one.

The brain scan seemed to be a huge turning point. As I lay in the MRI machine feeling the most relaxed that I’d been in months, it was as if I knew deep down that I was going to be given the all clear. That’s the worst thing about it all really. When you search deep down within you know you’re overreacting, but that doesn’t stop the constant pain and the little voice in your head constantly telling you what you least want to hear. Whenever a rational thought entered my mind, it would immediately be replaced by the thought of what happened to my family members and the fear would just intensify. Not only was I having to cope with the health anxiety itself, but I was also plagued by guilt, knowing that there were so many people out there who really were ill and were going through so much worse than me. There I was in perfectly good physical health, and I was wasting it.

I wouldn’t say I fully trusted the MRI result, but it was enough to reassure me that my death wasn’t imminent. So for a short while, things were kind of okay. Then the pain in my stomach started. Then there was the pain in my legs. Then there was the dizziness and chest pain. A week didn’t pass without me becoming completely obsessed with a new health issue, another trip to the doctors and another test at the hospital. Every single test would come back clear without fail. I started to cut things out of my diet and stop wearing certain clothes, jewellery and perfumes in a sudden fear that I was allergic to almost everything around me. I couldn’t go out and socialise and got extremely upset at the prospect of leaving the house without a close member of my family around in the fear that I was going to faint, be sick or even die in public. As someone who had lived for years with strong goals of moving far away from home, receiving a good university education and getting a top job, my life was a far cry from what it was before. I felt trapped within my own mind and body, devastated by the fact that I still had those goals, but no longer had the capability to obtain them.

Over this time I had tried and failed at 3 different methods of therapy with 3 different therapists. I couldn’t even bring myself to take the medication I’d been prescribed anymore because my fear of being allergic to everything had grown so strong. That was when I took my last shot. A 4th therapist. In the beginning it felt like it did every other time before. Then she introduced exposure therapy. At first, understandably, I was completely and utterly terrified. Then I went home and considered the fact that it really was the one thing I hadn’t tried yet and I was willing to try anything that could return me to an inch of the person that I once was. So it began.

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My therapist started to set me weekly tasks and encouraged me to keep a diary documenting my achievements each week. She was very strict in ensuring that I was following her instructions, though at that stage I needed that discipline in order to make progress in my recovery. Slowly and surely, I started to transform. I watched The Fault In Our Stars, I went online and read articles written by people with terminal illnesses, I slowly started to introduce foods I’d been avoiding back into my diet. These moments didn’t come without a great deal of stress and anxiety, but having the opportunity to rationally talk it through with someone afterwards was invaluable. The list of achievements started to grow and I saw a surge in my mood at this revelation that I wasn’t as useless as I thought. A particularly memorable step was putting on my favourite necklace that I’d avoided for months in fear of the allergy it could be causing me. I went into my session that week and the therapist said “did you wear the necklace”, and I replied “I am wearing the necklace.” To many people such a small action would sound absurd and meaningless, but to me it was a huge stepping stone and it was the first time I saw my usually very reserved therapist break out into a massive beaming smile. I knew that I was making progress, so when the time eventually came, leaving therapy was hard. At the forefront of my mind was the fear that I would leave and immediately return to my previous ways. But I didn’t, because I soon realised that I’d been armed with an invaluable set of tools that remained beyond that therapy room.

Fast forward to today. I am still absolutely living with health anxiety to some degree, but it is manageable. Manageable to the degree that I am now a regular viewer and obsessive fan of Holby City! It still evokes those anxious feelings within me sometimes, but I’ve come to accept and allow these feelings in the knowledge that avoiding them as opposed to normalising them would only make things worse. My main technique remains to be this- every time I start to obsess over an illness or condition I close my eyes and make a mental list. Firstly I list all of the reasons and pieces of proof I have that I am suffering from it. Then I list all of the reasons and pieces of proof I have that I’m not suffering from it. Unsurprisingly, the second list always tends to be quite a lot longer than the first. The most helpful thing about the exercise is that whilst I’m reassuring myself, I’m also healthily acknowledging and accepting the possibility that I can and will be unwell sometimes.

Anyway, that’s a condensed (but still rather long!) version of my story. I hope that for some people it’s a useful insight into an anxiety disorder that is seldom recognised. I also hope that for anyone reading this and still suffering with health anxiety, it’s a source of hope that it is possible to get better. I understand that my way of recovery will not be right for everyone, but I do have faith that none of us are beyond help. Never let your doctor, family, or anyone tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t valid. Most importantly never stop fighting for the treatment and quality of life that you deserve. Thanks for reading and as mentioned in my previous post, if anyone would like to talk about anything or give their feedback, you can contact me on my twitter account @emkirsten. Wishing all of you the very best. Until next time.

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