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Since I was 10 years old, I’ve spent my entire life struggling with intense anxiety about being unwell. This is known as being a hypochondriac. Everything little thing that I believe is not right or could be a symptom of something wrong with me becomes something important, something threatening, something to worry about.
I have a pretty severe allergy, which I didn’t actually discover until I was 10. I had an allergic reaction and went into anaphylactic shock. I was struggling to breathe and the thing I remember most vividly from this incident was the feeling of a large lump in my throat blocking my airway, which turned out to be the swelling of my throat. It was probably one of the scariest things I can remember happening to me. Since then, I’ve developed a really intense worry about anything to do with my throat that doesn’t feel right. This is turn has led to further worry about other physical symptoms I experience, leading to general health anxiety.
To me, something as simple as a sore throat can have me worrying for days about what’s causing it. Swollen glands, which I used to get a lot, I find terrifying. Even other aches and pains not related to my throat causes me worry. A stomach ache that lasts for a while suddenly becomes a big problem and I can’t stop thinking about it. A headache that still won’t go away after painkillers, starts to make me feel sick with worry sometimes. A random chest pain really alarms me and I start to imagine other symptoms that I have and suddenly I find myself researching into some really obscure illness that I worry I’m developing. The psychological impact of this worry is that it makes me feel even more ill, causing a vicious cycle of worry and illness that I can’t escape from.
I’ve had generalised anxiety for years, and hypochondria, which is basically known as health anxiety, is a more intense and concentrated form of this. It is said that people who tend to worry about day to day events also tend to ‘catastrophise’; we exaggerate things unconsciously to make them seem much worse than they are. I frequently have days where I’m constantly worrying about a pain in my chest, a stomach ache, a slightly swollen throat. I sit in my room, fretting about what it could be. It can distract me from work, it can make me feel down and isolated. I’ve been known to take allergy medication when I know rationally that I’m not having a reaction, simply because there’s a part of my brain that’s telling me there’s something wrong and that I can’t breathe. Ironically, many of the physical symptoms of anxiety itself involve a shortness of breath and a feeling of tightness, probably partly caused by the general anxiety I experience.
One consequence of this is that other people don’t understand how I can worry so much about it. I constantly want reassurance that I’m not ill and that it’s not something to worry about, and yet even if I do get told it’s fine, there’s still a part of me that doesn’t believe them. To some people, a hypochondriac is simply a moaner, someone who likes to wallow in their illness, someone who likes to be ill so they have a cause for sympathy. I tend to try and hide how I feel, how worried I am; I don’t want people to know that I’m obsessing over something that they will think is so insignificant. They dismiss it with a ‘you’re fine, stop worrying’. If it was just that simple, I would be delighted. As it is, I honestly can’t help it. Even as I’m writing this I’m drinking an excessive amount of water to attempt to get rid of what I feel like is a lump in my throat.
I know it’s an irrational worry, but that doesn’t make me stop worrying about it. Anxiety is irrational, and after recently seeing a close family member go through an awful illness, my anxiety has only become worse. But I do feel guilty that I spend so much time worrying about being ill. I begin to wonder why I worry so much, why I have to make it about me, even though I try to hide the anxiety I feel. This in turn makes me feel even worse about the situation, as I get trapped in this cycle of illness, worry and guilt.
Having hypochondria is a constant worry, constant fear, constantly researching and self-diagnosing and nervously waiting for the symptoms I think I have to go away. In today’s society, hypochondriacs can sometimes become a source of amusement. But for the person who is genuinely worrying that there is something seriously wrong with them, it’s difficult to hear these jokes at the expense of our mental health.
If you are suffering from what could be health anxiety or hypochondria, remember that there are people out there who can reassure you and help you. As difficult as it can be to believe people when they tell you you’re fine, a doctor does know what they’re talking about. Allow yourself a second opinion if you still don’t believe them, but learn to let it go. Distract yourself, think about taking up regular exercise and eating healthily, to make yourself feel better about your body and your health. Recognise that many people have explained physical symptoms that are not part of any illness or disease, and remember that most importantly you are never alone in this worry.