(image: Natalie Dee)
Imagine the scene: you’ve woken up with a banging headache, a sick feeling in your stomach, and a fever. You take a paracetamol and return to bed with a strong cup of tea, and decide to make the classic mistake of Googling your symptoms. You know you shouldn’t do it, you know that an Internet search engine can’t give you an accurate diagnosis, but it’s just so easy and tempting! You put your symptoms into an online checker, and read through the dozens of conditions that could be causing them. It could be a cold, a stomach bug, some kind of virus, or… malaria?! Brain cancer?! That’s it. This is the end. You’ve somehow contracted a rare but swiftly fatal disease, and should begin saying your goodbyes. It must be true: the Internet said so!
At this point, a neurotypical person would probably question the logic of the I’m-going-to-die thought train They’d dismiss the fear, accept that they’ve probably just got a cold, and move on with their day. However, when you have health anxiety, it’s not that simple. The kind of panicked thoughts outlined above refuse to budge, and obsessive worry can take over your mind for hours on end.
I’ve suffered from health anxiety for as long as I can remember, relating to both myself and others. For me, symptoms of illness can’t possibly be the result of a mild ailment: they must signal cancer, or sepsis, or some other severe and life-threatening condition. The same goes for the people I love. I’ve spent nights sobbing because I’m convinced that my nearest and dearest are facing imminent death. Just last week, I was hit by a crippling fear that my boyfriend had a brain tumour because he’d been suffering from sickness and a headache for four days. This morning, I decided that my cat was clearly on the brink of death because she didn’t use her litter tray overnight. Looking back, these thoughts seem ridiculous. At the time, however, they were gripping and all-consuming.
While health anxiety still hits me pretty much any time I or my loved ones fall ill, I’ve got a lot better at dealing with it over the years. What used to be days of endless worry has been reduced to maybe a couple of hours of panic that I can eventually fight off. I’ve learned techniques that tame this distressing and frankly irritating beast. The first of these is avoiding the previously aforementioned trap of Googling my symptoms. Nothing good is EVER going to come of it, because the Internet is utterly obsessed with convincing everyone they’ve got cancer. Why would I put myself at risk of seeing this when it’s only going to increase my anxiety ten-fold? It can be pretty hard to resist the temptation to hit the search engines, especially when I’m feeling really rotten, but it’s for the best.
Secondly, I’ve come up with certain rules for myself when I feel ill to stop me from freaking out and needlessly heading to the GP. If my symptoms are minor, I only go to the doctor if they persist for a few days or start to worsen. If I feel myself starting to panic, I seek the opinion of someone rational, who usually confirms that whatever I’m suffering from probably won’t kill me. If I am genuinely poorly, I of course go to the doctor and get any medication that I need. However, I try not to pander to my anxiety by telling my GP about every little twinge or sniffle I experience. It only wastes their time, and it’s a temporary fix that only serves to reinforce rather than break my vicious cycle of panic. It’s important for me to address the source of the anxiety, rather than use my doctor as a mental and emotional crutch.
Finally, I try to remind myself that I can’t control the health or the actions of other people. When I get health anxiety about the people I love, my first instinct is to frogmarch them immediately to a doctor, whether they want to go or not. However, I’m trying to teach myself that I have to leave others to make their own choices regarding their health. Freaking them out by telling them I think they have a tumour isn’t exactly going to help them to feel better- in fact, it’s probably going to have the opposite effect. While acknowledging a lack of control seems terrifying to my anxious brain, it’s necessary. While I would love to be able to constantly protect everyone I care about, I can’t. Trying to do so is only going to leave me- and others- stressed out. Relinquishing that responsibility can actually be quite liberating! I’m not saying I don’t acknowledge when my loved ones are ill: I just try to give them the support they want, and not the smothering attention that my anxiety demands.
I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be free of my health anxiety. I think the only thing that could completely cure it would be my loved ones and I never getting sick again, which isn’t very likely! However, I’ve managed to minimise its impact on my life by challenging my anxious thoughts and stopping them from controlling my actions. I’m sure my poor, long-suffering doctor will be thrilled!
Ellie Miles is a freelance mental health writer and blogger based in the United Kingdom. When she isn’t writing about her experiences with depression and anxiety, she’s probably playing with her cat. You can find more of Ellie’s work at www.elliemileswrites.com, or follow her on Twitter (@elmiles_) for life updates and copious cat photos.