Credit: Katrina Williams

Worried sick

By Emma Urbanova

Why “stop worrying” doesn’t help in the battle with hypochondria.

Mastoiditis. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Temporomandibular joint disorder. You name it, I’ve encountered all of these illnesses on my frantic Googling sprees and convinced myself I had them. After hours of touching the weird lump in my neck or trying to identify the cause of yet another obscure pain in my body, my mind paints the worst scenarios. I am going to die.

I’m not exaggerating – what I’ve just described is a reaction known by every person suffering from hypochondria, also known as health anxiety. Having been ill at least four times in the past three months (a natural reaction from my body to the Glaswegian autumn and winter), I could not get rid of an incessant tickly cough that has forced me to excuse myself from seminars. After so many weeks of feeling like crap, I could not put my finger on what exactly was causing these symptoms. In my mind, it could be anything from pneumonia to good ol’ Covid-19. Between panicking and calling the University GP’s hotline, I’ve experienced some gaslighting by my friends: “Oh, you’re sick again?” “Stop worrying so much, it’s all in your mind” “You’re such a hypochondriac!”. Tell me something I don’t know…

The word “hypochondriac” seems to have become nothing more than a word people tend to throw about, belittling the actual struggles experienced by people suffering from health anxiety. The overuse of “hypochondriac” obscures the fact that the word describes a mental disorder. According to Harvard Medical School, hypochondria – now most often referred to as “health anxiety” – affects 4% to 5% of people, but experts maintain it could be much higher in reality due to underreporting. It has certainly been on the rise since the onset of the pandemic – how many of us have been frantically looking out for Covid-related symptoms or obsessively testing ourselves? Health anxiety can be an extremely debilitating condition, impacting our daily life and wellbeing significantly, and it should be acknowledged as such.

“The overuse of ‘hypochondriac’ obscures the fact that the word describes a mental disorder.”

When I expressed some caution about attending public events just before the Christmas break, I was dismissed as “ridiculous” and “worrying too much”. What people didn’t seem to realise was how important it is for international students like myself to be cautious in these times, having only a few chances a year to see friends and family, often splurging hundreds on flight tickets and Covid tests for travel. It’s a daunting prospect to be stuck alone in a foreign country with some not-altogether-pleasant symptoms while your pals back home post their Christmas decorations and family gatherings online. If that was your case during the break, I salute you – you are incredibly strong.   

Next time your friend refuses to enter an overcrowded club or wears a mask at a public venue where nobody else does, don’t make fun of them for doing so. If they seem off or keep mentioning this one symptom they’re worried about, don’t dismiss their worries, and think twice before calling them a hypochondriac. Believe me, people suffering from health anxiety don’t need another health issue to worry about.  Listen to them, acknowledge what they’re experiencing, and encourage them to contact a GP if they are persistently worried. You can offer to attend the appointment with them or call the practice instead of them – with many of the appointments being telephone-based, it can be significantly off-putting for a person with anxiety to call. Additionally, make sure they know they have your continued support no matter what.

Finally, if you suffer from health anxiety yourself, you are not alone. Try to combat your stress by sober reasoning once your anxiety steps down and allows you to see things more realistically: “Is it really probable that I have this illness? Is my mind just tricking me into experiencing symptoms that aren’t real?” Whether it’s Covid or cancer you’re worried about, try to step outside your head and reach out for help. Crucially, avoid excessive Googling, and be cautious when talking about your symptoms with people who are not medical professionals, as they may say the wrong things without intending to. What you can do, is have a look at some online resources for some clear advice, such as the NHS website on health anxiety, or talk to a mental health counsellor. However sinister a role hypochondria may play in your life, it is highly treatable. 


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