Have you heard of health anxiety? If not, you’ve probably heard the old term for it…hypochondriac. Hypochondriac has such a negative connotation around it, so I’m actually pretty glad that they have stopped using that term. It’s now recognized as a somatic symptom disorder and an anxiety disorder.
So back to what health anxiety is, for those of you that haven’t heard of it before. Health anxiety is the misinterpretation of normal bodily sensations as dangerous. Healthy bodies produce all sorts of physical symptoms that might be uncomfortable, painful, unexpected, and otherwise unwanted — but not dangerous.
Normal sensations in the body that can produce fear and worry include changes in heart rate, blood pressure, saliva levels, depth of breathing, balance, and muscle tone, just to name a few. These can be normal and harmless bodily changes, but when a person believes they are symptoms of some horrible disease, it causes anxiety.
People who suffer from health anxiety can be people who are always at the doctors, or people who are so afraid to find out if they have a terrible illness that they just don’t go to the doctors. I have been on both sides.
Most recently, I have been kind of convincing myself that I probably have skin cancer because I go outside all the time. I look at every spot on my body and wonder to myself if it’s skin cancer. The fear stemmed from seeing Snapchat news stories saying things like “Woman’s Acne Scar She Had For Years Was Skin Cancer” and also someone I went to high school with’s mom died of skin cancer last year.
I have been wanting to start getting a yearly skin check for years, but I have been too afraid to call. In October, I asked my primary care doctor if I needed a referral for to get a skin check, but due to having eczema and having gone to the dermatologist within the last year, I could call and schedule it myself. It is now January and I have not scheduled that appointment. I actually wanted a full skin check while I was there for my eczema, but as soon as the dermatologist was done checking my hands, she left and I didn’t even get a chance to ask if she would also do that.
At the end of December, I got sick with what I assumed was COVID. I was SO SICK. I had a horrible fever, my head was pounding, my throat was so sore, and even just hurting my eyes moved. In terms of COVID…it was mild. In fact, it never even got into my lungs, I had no congestion or cough. But, I convinced myself I was going to be one of the unfortunate people who died. I thought I was going to become another statistic. The anxiety was unreal.
A lot of my anxiety symptoms are physical. Before I understood this, it used to cause me a lot of anxiety. I would find myself on Google searching things like “shortness of breath” or “rapid heart rate” or “heart palpitations.” And of course…while sometimes anxiety would come up in Google, other times, horrible diseases would. The worst thing I could have done was run to Google, yet anytime ANYTHING feels weird, I have the urge to Google and then get lost in Web MD, which promptly tells me “you’re dying.”
I’m not going to lie, there are nights that I literally can’t fall asleep because I start thinking about things like the impending doom of skin cancer I might not even have. There are nights I am terrified that my teeth are all going to fall out of my head. I worry about my thyroid getting worse even though while it’s not optimally functioning, it has not been in the red zone ever and I’ve been regularly getting tested for years due to family history. If I’m abnormally tired, I automatically think something crazy like “cancer, I’m probably dying.” The thoughts never seem to end.
If you do happen to have health anxiety, there is help out there. The most effective treatment for health anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT aims to help you overcome fears by correcting irrational thoughts and changing problematic behaviors. It is possible to have anxiety and a serious medical condition, so do be sure that you’re yearly getting a physical exam so if you are ill, it can be caught early.
If you’re struggling but you’re not sure where to get help, be sure to check out our resources page.