Confessions Of A Hypochondriac: Five Tips For Coping With Health Anxiety
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
If you’re worried about getting ill at the moment, well, same. As we slowly emerge from isolation and edge our way out from under the shadow of a pandemic, it’s natural that we’re a little more alert about what might be lurking on door handles, park benches or takeaway boxes. “Coronaxiety” has officially become a thing (no, really, it has).
Nobody understands this fear more than me because for most of my adult life I’ve battled with chronic health anxiety – a sometimes crippling mental health condition characterised by an obsessive and irrational fear of becoming ill. Sufferers can spend hours checking for symptoms, seeking reassurance and often alter their daily lives to avoid potential health risks. Often referred to as hypochondria, it’s one of the biggest mental health issues charity Anxiety UK deals with, and it’s on the rise, with a recent survey revealing that a third of us feel more worried about our health because of the pandemic.
At its worst, I was checking symptoms online hundreds of times a day and undergoing countless unnecessary medical check-ups in search of answers to my imaginary ailments. Work, relationships and my mental health suffered. At one point I became too afraid to leave the house.
Thanks to therapy (I chose the cognitive behavioural kind) and by openly discussing my fears, though, I eventually discovered how to manage it. And what I learnt can help anyone who’s fearful of illness. So, if the new normal is making you feel nervous, grab the handwash, slip on a mask (still sensible precautions) and use the following tips to control your fear, rather than letting your fear control you.
01. Avoid obsessive self-checking
During the height of the lockdown my thermometer was calling to me like a siren, hellbent on shipwrecking me on the shores of my own self-doubts. I know from experience, though, that repeatedly checking yourself for symptoms is part of health anxiety’s destructive MO. It’s classic “reassurance behaviour” – like repeatedly checking a light is off when you leave the house.
I’m not saying don’t be vigilant (let’s face it, men are bad enough at ignoring symptoms as it is), but be careful not to let self-checking become an obsession. The minute it does it will only feed your anxiety. (I once felt the glands in my neck so often they actually became swollen in response to all the fiddling, thus creating a symptom that convinced me I was ill.) If you are genuinely worried you might be ill, seek proper medical advice – it’ll always be more reliable than Dr You (and it’ll certainly be more reliable than Dr Internet, which brings us to…)
02. Be wary of research rabbit holes
The internet’s a wonderful thing. It’s great for finding out why sweatshirts have a triangle on the neck (to save you the bother of looking, it was originally to collect sweat and prevent the collar from stretching); it’s not so good, however, if you want to accurately diagnose an illness. Still, let’s be honest, who hasn’t googled a symptom or headed towards a health forum when they felt under the weather? As one of the therapists who helped me with my anxiety pointed out, though, research your symptoms for long enough and you’ll inevitably end up with death as the outcome.
This writer has wasted entire days researching illness. Don’t be like this writer. If the news leads you down an R-rated rabbit hole, apply filters to your apps to limit health news, use the mute word function on Twitter and stick to reliable sources for your information. Or do as I do and set yourself a 10-minutes-a-day limit to keep up with news events regarding the coronavirus. I do this first thing, but never before bed (if I want nightmares, I’ll watch Hellraiser). Health-based anxiety is a hungry beast so the last thing you want to do is offer it an all-it-can-eat buffet, followed by pudding and a coffee.
03. Stage your own intervention
Classic health anxiety follows a predictable cycle and understanding how that cycle works is the key to breaking it – and its hold over you. It usually starts with a trigger (perhaps you see something on the news, hear of someone being ill or have a sniffle yourself). That causes you to focus your attention on your own body and its sensations.
Fear that those sensations could be illness takes over and you start checking for symptoms or looking for reassurance via the internet or a doctor’s visit. Maybe you start avoiding certain “dangerous” situations. Which leads to more fear and anxiety and that makes you feel ill – and then you feel anxious. You can see the problem.
Luckily, once you understand the cycle, you can spot what’s going on and interrupt it at any point. The easiest way? Distraction. Go for a walk, KonMari your sock drawer, make pizza. Just break it. Alternatively, write your fears down on one side of a piece of paper (eg, “I’m going to die of coronavirus” and challenge them on the other side with “crossing the road is riskier”). It’s the easiest way to unmask irrationality.
04. Replace health worries with health actions
Everyone has lightbulb moments during therapy. Mine came when I realised that negative health worries can be counteracted by positive health actions. Instead of brooding about getting ill, I learnt to shift my focus towards staying well. I started yoga lessons, made positive changes to my diet, upped my exercise and reduced my alcohol consumption – booze is anxiety’s best frenemy – and started taking 10-mile walks in the countryside (I now love my walking boots more than my Grensons, which is saying something).
Getting more active caused a paradigm shift that made the biggest single difference to my anxiety levels and to how I viewed illness: the more I thought about staying well, the less I thought about feeling ill. Trust me, there’s no better antidote to unwanted internal thoughts than proactive external activity, so dig out your running gear and try it – it really works.
05. Be mindful to live in the now
When you live in fear of getting ill, you effectively spend all your time in the future rather than the here and now. You’re always worried about what might happen, what infections you might catch and what might happen if you catch them.
Living in the now robs that fear of the energy it needs to grow, which is why a little mindfulness (and that can be anything from meditation to simply listening out for birdsong on your walk to work) can be useful in allaying your fears. If you’re worried about getting ill, acknowledge that thought for what it is – just a thought about getting ill, rather than an actual prediction – and return to the here and now.
As someone who writes about style and grooming for a living, I often use fragrance to stay mindful. I wore my favourite scent every single day during lockdown and had a sniff every time I got anxious. Few things bring you back into the room – and into the here and now – quite like a familiar, comforting smell. Whatever your technique, the important thing is to stay in the moment – if you spend your time fearing death, you’ll ultimately avoid living life.