To relaunch our series on less commonly discussed mental health issues, an anonymous writer shares their experiences with hypochondria.
I have had more illnesses than I can count while simultaneously having only one.
It is 2am on a weekday. I am sitting in the back seat of our family car in an oversized jumper and my pyjama bottoms, gripping my boyfriend’s hand, knuckles white, drenched in sweat. I truly believe this is the last time I will see him. I tell my mum, in the driver’s seat, to speed up. We don’t have much time.
A&E is surprisingly quiet as I run to the reception desk and beg to be seen instantly. My heart - there’s something wrong, and I think it is a heart attack. The nurse at the desk tells me to take a seat in the waiting room and await the call of a doctor, much to my horror. He doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation. Except he does. He may have seen many heart attacks in his life, but he has also witnessed his fair share of panic attacks. Working in the medical profession, I don’t doubt he has witnessed a lot of these attacks being brought on by anxieties surrounding health.
Health anxiety, also commonly known as hypochondria is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “abnormal chronic anxiety about one's health”. Yet, it is so much more than that – as with every mental health issue, it cannot be confined to a mere definition.
According to Medical News Today, it affects up to 5% of medical outpatients in the USA. This is the only statistic that is possible to find without trolling through the back pages of the internet for hours, most likely while stumbling across illness-related triggers that would only serve to further provoke panic attacks. The bottom line is that there is not enough information about health anxiety. Information that, if made available, would be essential to not just sufferers, but the NHS doctors who work tirelessly in their attempts to support those with mental health issues with extremely limited time and resources.
Due to the mental health treatment sector’s lack of funding and resources, my attempts to seek instant treatment for panic attacks brought on by my health anxiety were met with rejection. I will never forget opening a letter from my doctor which stated that, after careful assessment, I did not qualify for therapy and so there was nothing they could do to help at this time. At this time I was too afraid to leave the house, and was over analysing every bodily function and sensation. I was checking my body for rashes and lumps. I was utterly convinced that I was going to die, and it was ruining my life.
Constant anxiety brings about physical symptoms. It all starts with a sinking feeling in my chest, accompanied by a sense of foreboding that sends me into a spiral of panic. Then come the bouts of inescapable dizziness, the ringing in my ears that make the voices of those surrounding me an inaudible blur, heart palpitations, throbbing headaches, pains throughout my body, creeping red rashes, uncontrollable shaking, hot sweats … The list goes on. I convince myself that there is a numbness creeping up my left side, that soon I will be unable to move. In my mind, the rash from heat and stress suddenly becomes the first symptom of an incurable blood infection. This is what traps those with health anxiety into a cycle of making themselves more ill due to worrying about symptoms that are, in turn, brought on by their worrying. It is a never-ending cycle that brings with it an extreme sense of hopelessness. I would find myself zoning out in social situations all while having an intense fear of being alone with my own thoughts.
Googling symptoms was once an addiction of mine, and one of the main reasons that I would often end up in the waiting room during my GP’s drop-in sessions, or at A&E during the early hours of the morning. For me, forcing myself to stop looking up my symptoms, no matter how worried I am, was a big step in starting my recovery process – a journey that I am still currently on.
Although they are incredibly helpful for many with mental health issues, I was reluctant to take medication due to the symptoms that potentially cam along with them. A two-year waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or the costly private route were also ruled out as options. I don’t doubt that many will be able to relate to the sense of entrapment that arises from feeling as though there is no available help. Natural remedies such as CBD oil provide me with the most solace, yet they in no way compensate for the relief one can feel talking to a professional, or finding solidarity among other sufferers.
If someone had told me, days deep into a seemingly never-ending panic, that I “wasn’t alone” or that “it will get better”, I probably would have screamed at them. However, from a more objective point of view, these somewhat cheesy statements are often true. It was only when reaching out to my friends and loved ones about what I was going through that the sense of loneliness that came along with my hypochondria began to dissipate.
We need to talk about mental health more candidly and encourage everyone to join in on the conversation. We need to demand that those in power provide better resources for those suffering, creating within the NHS somewhere to turn. Telling this story is a difficult but cathartic experience that will hopefully encourage conversation surrounding health anxiety and perhaps even reach someone who, up until now, believed they were alone in their experiences.