By Toni Stanger
CN: hypochondria, hospitals,
illness, IBS, death, anxiety, suicide
I was sitting at my computer, highly anxious and severely underweight. I hadn’t showered in over a week and if I wasn’t sitting at my computer, I was confined to my bed watching Netflix as a means of distraction.
This was towards the end of last year when my irritable bowel syndrome, commonly known as IBS, suddenly got really bad. To this day, it hasn’t seemed to improve much.
The nine tabs I had open were of blogs, videos and forums filled completely with other people’s experiences with IBS and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I added these web pages to my bookmarks, into their own well-organised folders, for reference.
“I added these web pages to my bookmarks, into their own well-organised folders, for reference”
At that time, I was waiting on test results to confirm whether or not I had Colitis (an IBD which runs on my mother’s side of the family). The diets and medications weren’t improving my symptoms, so Colitis was looking more and more probable to me. I was frightened that the test results would confirm my worst fears; especially as the stories I was reading online were of the horror genre- including immense pain, urgent hospital visits and, ultimately, death itself.
My most troublesome physical symptoms were unpleasant bowel movements and discomfort, lightheadedness, lack of energy and feeling feverish and generally unwell. Mentally, I was incredibly distressed as I continued to live in high anxiety with intense panic attacks and depression, in addition to frequent bouts of suicidal feelings. Overall, I lived in deep fear of triggering a panic attack, fear of eating and fear of seeing blood in my stools (a hallmark symptom of Colitis). I felt so unwell and, knowing that most of my symptoms were atypical for IBS, began spiralling into life as a full-blown hypochondriac; I was terrified of my seemingly inevitable premature death.
Spending days in bed, paralysed by the terror, I researched my symptoms for hours and hours. I was – and still am – hyperaware of every shift in my nervous system, and every movement my digestive system makes. I was experiencing too many physical symptoms and was hell-bent on finding out exactly why each one of them was happening to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were due to some serious illness or disease. I was panicking myself to death.
“I was – and still am – hyperaware of every shift in my nervous system, and every movement my digestive system makes”
My research told me that it was Colitis, that it was bowel or colon cancer, that there was a blockage in my bile ducts, and that my stools were stuck and needed to be surgically removed or I would die. When reading about these, I was vividly imagining these things happening to the inside of my body, and it only made my anxiety worse. During times like these, my life flashed before my eyes. I was worrying about the loved ones I’d leave behind, and I was seeing comedy legend Spike Milligan’s infamous epitaph – “I told you I was ill” – on my own gravestone. Whilst confiding in my mother temporarily made me feel better, I made sure to visit my local GP as soon as I could to voice my concerns before it was too late.
“I was seeing comedy legend Spike Milligan’s infamous epitaph – “I told you I was ill” – on my own gravestone”
I knew I was being ridiculous at times, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying. I knew I was catastrophising, but I couldn’t help it. My physical symptoms were so constant that it left no chance for my anxiety around them to subside. I thought I was dying and only a medical health care professional could try to convince me otherwise. I visited my local GP multiple times a week, as well as having regular appointments with a doctor at the hospital who even ran a test for AIDS just to put my mind at rest. It was of course highly unlikely that I had AIDS, but he could see how worked up I was about constantly feeling feverish and unwell.
In addition to expressing my worst fears to my mother and various doctors, I needed another outlet. I rambled about all of this – as it was happening – online onto my personal venting blog. Eventually, I received an anonymous message telling me that my self-diagnosing on the internet was getting out of hand. “Here’s a diagnosis for you: hypochondria”. It was harsh of them to say this, but I guess it was pretty obvious considering.
“Eventually, I received an anonymous message. ‘Here’s a diagnosis for you: hypochondria'”
On July 17th, 2017, I was formally diagnosed with hypochondria, among other things. It was no surprise by any means. I knew full well I was going to receive that diagnosis. It’s the only diagnosis I’d gotten right. It was clear that it was triggered by stress, my ongoing unpleasant IBS symptoms and my pre-existing anxiety disorder.
Following this, a friend tried to tell me that “everyone is a bit of a hypochondriac.” It’s unfortunate to me that hypochondria is still a term that is used so loosely to describe someone temporarily concerned about their health when, in reality, it is incredibly detrimental to someone’s health. It causes immense mental distress, somatic symptoms (an excessive focus with physical symptoms, thus worsening them) and interrupts someone’s daily life. It’s important to raise awareness for hypochondria as it is clearly not taken seriously as a form of anxiety (or, if you prefer, a somatic symptom) disorder, as demonstrated by my friend’s unintentionally dismissive comment. It is through no fault of her own that she was unaware of just how serious hypochondria is. Even I, at the time, failed to realise how much this disorder was impacting my life.
“Hypochondria is clearly not taken seriously as a form of anxiety”
Here are the main signs and symptoms of hypochondria:
- obsessing over having or getting a serious illness or disease
- misinterpreting physical symptoms
- being overly concerned about a specific organ or bodily system (the area of concern may change)
- Having health concerns which interrupt day-to-day life
- Having a history of visiting the GP, and possibly not being reassured by a doctor or fear they are wrong or have made a mistake
Those who also are diagnosed with depression and/or an anxiety disorder may be more likely to develop hypochondria, as are those who have recently experienced a loss or stressful event. In particular, people who lose a relative through illness may worry that the same thing will happen to them.
“All this time I thought there was something seriously wrong with me but, as it turns out, anxiety really is just that bad”
All this time I thought there was something seriously wrong with me but, as it turns out, anxiety really is just that bad. I’ve recently had mental health care professionals reiterate to me just how awful an anxiety disorder, and something such as hypochondria, actually is. They reassured me that they do in fact cause a lot of different mental and physical symptoms and, although anxiety is very complex and therefore difficult to treat, it is very possible to do so and live a normal life.
If you struggle with hypochondria, you are not alone. There are many different types of treatment available. They generally include a type of medication, a form of cognitive therapy and, sometimes, exposure and response prevention therapy. However, if you’re on a waiting list for therapy, like I am, here are some things you can do now to try and help reduce your stressful symptoms:
- Stop researching your symptoms. The internet is a big place and you will come across websites where information may be overwhelming and inaccurate. You will also come across people talking about their worst experiences, which may worsen your worries, as people don’t often share success stories if their problem has been treated quickly and with success. It can be incredibly difficult to stop researching your symptoms so, if you must, use a website with more concise and accurate information such as the Royal College Psych website. Another way to combat the urge is to use a browser extension (for example, StayFocused or Forest) to block you from going on certain websites.
- Stop and think about your symptoms. Whenever you feel any physical symptoms that worry you, take a moment to figure out why they could be happening and be realistic. Talk to your GP about recurring symptoms that are troubling you.
- See your GP regularly. Whilst it’s not practical taking up appointment space for every little thing, it’s useful to build a trustworthy relationship with your doctor, and make sure they are aware of your health anxiety. You can suggest regular follow-ups so your worries can always be checked over. Don’t be afraid to tell your doctor what is bothering you and demand to know exactly why some symptoms may be happening.
If you think you have hypochondria, make an appointment with your local GP to discuss diagnosis and treatment options. Remember that you’re not going mad, and it’s possible to lead a happy and normal life as, hypochondria is treatable.
Header image by Alex Proimos