Health anxiety is a pretty lonely condition to have.

It’s something very few people can understand, or relate to, for one thing. Many people struggle to see hypochondria as an illness – even a mental health one – and instead see it as, well, a bit silly, really. Something you can – and should – be able to “just snap out of”, at will. Of course, it doesn’t work like that (I mean, IF ONLY!), but, because it’s (understandably) hard for “normal” people to understand, or empathize with, it can be easy for the health anxiety sufferer to feel like they’re the only person in the world who’s ever felt this way. Fun times, huh?

Here are just a few of the things people with health anxiety know…

Statistics are meaningless

Because health anxiety isn’t always a rational fear, it’s impossible to rationalise someone out of it. It’s a little bit like fear of flying, really: every time I tell someone I’m frightened of flying, I can guarantee they’ll say one of two things to me: it’ll be either…

a) “It’s the safest form of transport, you know!”

or

b) “You have more chance of being killed in your car on the way to the airport!” (Which, thanks, you just made me scared of driving now, too: awesome!)

Now, both of these statistics are correct, as it happens, but here’s the thing: they’re not remotely reassuring, because the fact is, when you hit turbulence at 20,000 feet, flying really doesn’t FEEL like the safest form of transport, does it? No, it feels like being trapped in a tin can, high above the earth, heading for certain death. Health anxiety, as it happens, feels a bit like that, too, although normally without the “20,000 feet” bit. So, when I discover a symptom that scares me, it really doesn’t matter how many times people try to rationalise me out of feeling terrified about it: quite simply, my brain doesn’t work like that – so, while you can look at the fact, and assess the risk level as result of that, I can only go by how I feel about it … and my risk level is always, always at DEFCON 1.

dealing with health anxietyThere’s a (scary) answer for everything

Another reason you can’t rationalise someone out of health anxiety is that we have an answer for everything – a scary one, natch. If you’re worried about a certain illness, say, and someone tells you it would be “almost impossible” for you to have it, while everyone else focuses on the word “impossible”, the person with health anxiety is going to hone right in on that “almost”. Almost impossible isn’t the same as pain old impossible, is it? So, basically, if something is almost impossible, that means it is, in fact, possible. And, for hypochondriacs, it’s just a very short leap from possible to probable. That “rare” disease that only 1 in a million people get? Someone has to be that one person, don’t they? And a one-in-a-million chance is still a chance – so why shouldn’t that person be YOU?

(Oddly, this kind of logic doesn’t extend to things like winning the lottery: I know I will never win the lottery, but I DO think there’s a pretty good chance of me catching that super-rare disease…)

Knowing you sound crazy doesn’t stop you sounding crazy

If you read the paragraph above, and thought, “Wow, that logic is INSANE!” you should know that I think that, too: and so do most of the other people I know who suffer from health anxiety. We KNOW we’re not being logical. We know we’re being annoying. We just don’t know how to stop it. We are very sorry about that.

It doesn’t matter how many times you experience a particular symptom…

… you’re still going to be convinced that THIS time will be the time it turns out to be something serious. Because it COULD be, right? I mean, look at what happened to the boy who cried “wolf”! Speaking of which:

Health anxiety doesn’t protect you from actual illness

If you’ve had health anxiety for any length of time, you’re probably used to being treated a bit like the boy who cried wolf by the people who have to listen to you obsess over the same old thing, over and over again.  What people with health anxiety understand, though, is just because it didn’t turn out to be something serious the OTHER 1,001 times we obsessed over that symptom, it doesn’t mean it won’t be something serious THIS time. I know that sounds like the kind of twisted logic that people use to justify their anxiety, and not have to deal with it, but it’s true: hypochondriacs get sick, too.

The worst-case scenario will always sound like the most probably one

I used to have a stupid, superstitious belief that the more I worried about something, the less likely it would be to actually happen to me – because, seriously, how likely would it be that the very thing I’d spent all of that time worrying about would actually come to pass? Then the very thing I’d been worrying about DID come to pass, and I realised that sometimes the worst-case scenario really does happen to people – no matter how unlikely it seems. I’m not so superstitious any more… and if you give me a list of 20 possible causes for whatever symptom it is I’m obsessing over, I’ll go straight to the most serious one, and dismiss all the rest. Every. Single. Time.

When you’re in the middle of a bout of health anxiety, counselling is not going to help you

Counselling really needs to happen BEFORE you discover that worrying symptom, in order for it to have given you the necessary tools to deal with it. If you wait until you’re mid-freak-out, then counselling won’t help you at that point: the only thing that WILL help is getting concrete proof that you do NOT actually have whatever it is you’re worried about. Twice now, I’ve gone to my GP with worrying physical symptoms, only for him to completely ignore the symptoms (both of which DID actually turn out to be something serious) in favour of trying to counsel me through my health anxiety. It was so incredibly distressing for me not to be listened to, or taken seriously, that I’m now looking for a new GP: someone who will at least take the time to hear me out, and put my mind at rest about the physical issue before moving on to the mental ones.

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger either

Seriously, I could name at least 20 things, right off the top of my head, that don’t kill you, but don’t make you stronger either. My experience last December was one of them: no, it didn’t kill me, but it definitely didn’t make me stronger, either – quite the opposite, in fact: afterwards, my anxiety was much, much worse, and I’m now even MORE afraid of hospitals and medical procedures than I was to start with, the experience simply having served to prove to me that I was right to be scared about those things, because they really WERE as bad as I’d always thought they would be.

You can read a lot into just a few words

If you’re speaking to someone with health anxiety, you have to be prepared to have every word you say hyper-analysed, right down to the tone of voice you used, and how sincere you looked when you said it. If we detect even the slightest hint of doubt in your, “I’m sure it’ll be OK!”, we will grill you like the KGB. If you slip up, and say something like, “I’m pretty sure it’ll be OK!” then you may as well have just said, “Hey, dude, looks like you’re going to die soon!” I mean, seriously.

Anyone else out there with health anxiety? Got any more of these to add?

17 Comments
  1. This is all very true – it’s a horrific mindset and one that I know all too well.
    Thank you Amber for raising awareness and starting a discussion – health anxiety is such a crippling disease and all too many people think it is “only them” who suffer, when in reality it is so widespread it can be regarded as an epidemic (especially amongst women –> see info on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website: https://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/women/facts).
    However, I feel we must not leave out a very important component in this discussion – namely that there is super effective medication out there which can literally blow all those negative thoughts away. As a form of OCD, health anxiety is treatable with SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, more commonly known as antidepressants), which for me worked like a charm against anxiety and obsessive thoughts (which were really, really, REALLY bad, trust me on this – like rolled up in a ball convinced I was losing my flipping mind bad). The first three weeks were horrendous, because the side effects kick in faster than the benefits of the medication, but pretty soon I started to experience something spookily wonderful: My brain was just shutting the excessive worries off, it was like I couldn’t access them any more at all. The noise became more and more quiet and finally stopped completely. I lead a super normal life now as opposed to one fraught with fears worse than fear of death, and the side effects (slight weight gain, dry mucous membranes) are negligible compared to the quality of life I experience now. I don’t even take that high a dose – pretty average in fact.
    Please people, do not let any sort of stigma or feeling of being “weak” or “crazy” stop you from trying medication we are lucky enough to access easily and fast in our western society – you would never tell a diabetic not to take insulin would you? Health anxiety is super scary (catch 22 🙂 ) and seeing a professional can be even scarier, but please remember it is not a life sentence.

  2. [I mention a health condition here: it’s none-life threatening and I don’t detail symptoms but TRIGGER WARNING FOR HA.]

    All of this chimes so much, especially your doctor focusing on HA to the exclusion of all else.

    I don’t think doctors realise how dangerous their attitude to HA can be. I had some symptoms then my doctor (at the time) agreed to blood test for. Some of the immunoglobulin results were off, but she focused on the fact that there was no sign of malignancy. She knew my primary fear was cancer and very much focused on that.

    Fast forward two years to a different doctor and persistent symptoms that I’d ignored as I’d been told they were fine/the result of anxiety. I’m diagnosed with pernicious anaemia after the symptoms becoming bad enough to impact my eyesight. The doctor who diagnosed me with PA was very clear that those immunoglobulin results were a harbinger and they got totally ignored because HA is on my file. Since then, I have developed a rapport with my GP and am very clear on the difference between “hey this is a real thing” and “my HA is being a dick, can you give me a hand with this?”

    The one thing I’d add is that NOTHING IS SAFE. I have been triggered by TV shows like Pretty Little Liars. For obvious reasons I avoid Casualty/House MD but PLL *should have been okay*! It’s made worse when TV shows/movies use incorrect medical information and I STILL freak out about it!

    Finally, on a personal note: we have spoken a bit about HA before, and I’ve always found it comforting to know someone else *gets it*. I have OCD too and it’s a far more “inclusive” illness with a lot more support and fellow sufferers; HA is far less understood. And sometimes it really has helped to know I’m not alone. Much love x

  3. You know, I have been trying to figure out what to write here for the past few minutes and keep deleting everything I type.
    Health anxiety sucks – my partner has it too, and I can see how it tears him apart and how nothing anyone can say can make a difference.
    I’m sorry to hear this is such a very real thing in your life, and although I want to say I hope you can beat it one day, I know those words won’t make a difference, so, here have a hug from a stranger instead *hug*

  4. Amber, thank you for being so open and specific about HA. I am not a health professional, but I hope I will remember what you’ve said here and respond with more sensitivity the next time someone expresses their fears and anxieties to me.

  5. I really, really liked this post. I’ve always thought my own mother was paranoid, as she freaks out about her health at every little thing and goes for checkouts regularly for multiple things. She is definitely sick a lot, but perhaps her rollercoaster emotions are because of health anxiety… something I knew nothing about.

    Charmaine Ng
    Architecture & Lifestyle Blog

  6. I have really appreciated your discussion on health anxiety – and the fact that you’ve given this thing a name. I actually hadn’t heard of health anxiety as a specific thing before. I accepted that I was generally crazy and had standard garden variety anxiety and that this particular obsessiveness with health and symptoms was a part of it. I actually have two other family members who also have health anxiety so yay it runs in my family! One goes to the doctors several times a week because he obsesses over every symptom and googles compulsively, owns out dated medical text books that he will get out and obsess over if you say that you have a sore throat/stomach/whatever. His wife on the other hand had health anxiety in the sense that she was convinced that every symptom = death, but had such an intense phobia of doctors and hospitals that she could never get help. Unfortunately as a result she passed away from cancer because she could not overcome her fear of doctors and hospitals until it was too late. Right before she died she said that she’d wished she had dealt with her anxiety better and had faced her fear of doctors and hospitals when she first started having the symptoms.

    What I would like to see is for doctors and nurses to be more understanding of this condition. Some are really great and helpful but a lot are just awful and condescending which just means unnecessary suffering. There’s nothing worse when you’re having a panic attack and the medical professional you’re dealing with says “How old are you?” and rolls their eyes like you’re some sort of moron or looks at you like you’re the biggest POS wasting their time. A few years ago I had a routine blood test and this doctor rang me up and told me that I needed to drop everything I was doing and get myself to a hospital ASAP. I kept asking her ‘why’ and she wouldn’t tell me, just kept stressing it was a matter of life or death basically and offering to call me an ambulance. So there I was on a bus heading home from doing my Christmas shopping, having a hysterical screaming and crying public break down because I’ve basically been told I have a few hours left to live! On the way to the hospital I collapse on a park bench and have a complete and utter break down where I am struggling to breathe and can barely get words out to my family on the phone about what’s happening. You can imagine how much stress this causes EVERYONE who rushes to come find me and take me to the hospital.

    By the time I get to the hospital I have to be given sedatives so that they can run a million expensive tests to find what everyone already knew; that my blood count was low – an inherited condition that I have which means I have a consistent very low count at all times. Much to the bemusement of the doctors on duty who were incredibly perplexed how it is that some idiots can get away with practicing medicine because all that idiot had to say on the phone was “your blood test results show a low count, is this something you have experienced before?” rather than “YOU NEED TO GET TO THE HOSPITAL RIGHT NOW, DO YOU NEED ME TO CALL YOU AN AMBULANCE?!” So yeah, things could definitely be improved with doctors trained to be conscious of health anxiety and how to mange patients who have it!!!

    1. Harlow, so sorry your relative with cancer did not get the treatment she needed or either her HA or cancer. Sad.

  7. This is a really interesting insight, Amber. Could I suggest a follow-up post? As a “normal” person trying to understand health anxiety, could you do a post on what I should actually say to someone, what can I do to make things a bit better, etc. Thanks,

  8. This an amazing post about health anxiety , this is the first time I heard of health anxiety as SOMETHING. I always thought that I was a very paranoid person and that I was getting crazy, I just was not able to take all those bad thoughts out of my head and I was obssesed with going to the doctor and looking for symptons in google, this post was really helpful I think that I can go through this with my family’s help and love.

  9. I don’t have health anxiety but I do have anxiety. I completely understand about GPs ignoring you. I have been in and out of mine for a numbet of things, they did tests, they did x-rays and I was basically told “there’s nothing wrong with you but if you want you can self refer to a physio for the pain.” The physio told me I had rheumatism. Eventually I went to my GP with a list, “oh I’ve not got time for a list.” Turns out I have something called Fibromyalgia, I’ll never get better, no cure, I’ll only get worse!! It was fantastic when the rhuematologist listened, he sympathised and I cried.
    It’s all about fighting for yourself with a GP. Good luck with your search. I hope you find a better GP.

  10. I actually think I have a touch of this as I could relate to a lot of what you are saying! It is scary. I would advise you to stay away from things like the Dailymail as I find it seems to be filled with horror stories of people picking up weird bugs from places or having crazy allergic reactions to things. Even though those things are really unlikely to happen, reading about whatever crazy thing happened to someone else makes me then think that there is this whole other thing I need to worry about. I am also sorry to hear that your GP ignored your symptoms. It is a horrible feeling when it seems like doctors aren’t taking you seriously.

  11. Thank you for sharing! I’ve read your other posts too and I just want to say that I’m SO sorry for all you’ve been through. I completely understand though, I have emetophobia (the phobia of vomit) which means that I experience many similar symptoms to people with health anxiety. It’s so lonely and isolating to have an illness like this! I actually just wrote a similar post about emetophobia on my blog because I feel like the more we share about lesser-known/ badly understood mental illnesses the less our fellow sufferers will feel alone. Personally I think you did really well to get through an extremely traumatic time, and I think you should be proud of yourself.

    Cia | littleyellowbutterflies.com

  12. I am so sorry that this is what you go through, Amber. I especially loved the last paragraph where you describe seeking out any nuance and attaching an ominous meaning to it.

  13. Your GP isn’t a counsellor and definitely isn’t qualified to act like one! You need to get a referral to a proper specialist for that 🙂

    1. In his defence, he actually is qualified as a counsellor – it’s just not appropriate to ignore the physical symptoms and just concentrate on the anxiety, no matter what!

  14. Great post Amber. This is something I struggle with. I actually joined Anxiety UK and as part of their membership you get free access to the headspace app (it has exercises specifically for Anxiety and also pregnancy). I listened to them lots towards the end of my second pregnancy when I was feeling stressed.

    Also just finished your book which I loved! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and tips. Have read a few books on blogging recently and yours has been my favourite!

  15. I know how you feel. I have this too…and I’m a doctor.

    They say a little knowledge is dangerous and for me it most certainly is. Any slight twinge and my brain has correlated that with, for example, the cough I had two weeks last Thursday, and concocted a worst-case-scenario diagnosis.

    Imagine the problems this poses when your GP knows you are a doctor and the barrier this puts up when trying to get help for the anxiety part. I’m too frightened to admit my anxieties to my doctor in fear of them dismissing any legitimate symptoms in the future.

    I’m glad to learn I’m not the only one and wish you luck finding a new GP.

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