Today I wanted to chat about health anxiety.
It starts, usually, with a news story.
I’ll hear a snippet on the radio, or catch a newspaper headline. I turn the page, change the channel, but not quite fast enough.
A Mum in her 30s found dead in her bed. Someone with DVT after a long-flight. A woman with terminal ovarian cancer after being misdiagnosed.
And that’s it. I’m convinced I’m about to die of DVT. Or a stroke.
I’m a grown, sensible woman – and I’m also a part-time hypochondriac.
The Life of a Part-Time Hypochondriac
I know that I am perfectly healthy. Well, as far as we know, I’m perfectly healthy.
I had a full health screen when I turned 40 (thanks, NHS) and over the years I’ve had enough x-rays and tests for various maladies that if I had a serious illness, I’d probably know about it.
Friends, this sort of rational thinking has no place in my life some days.
The days when I see the Facebook news story about that guy who coughed so hard he ACTUALLY coughed up his lung I can obsess about it for the entire day. Or that person who sneezed and their teeth fell out?? (getting a bit panicky just remembering that one)
The Joy of Being 40
During my 30s, I was mostly neurotic about all the Terrible Things that might happen to Flea. I used to be able to quote how many children per year were killed falling off ladders (it’s more than you’d expect).
But I really didn’t worry about my own health.
It was only as I approached 40, that I started to worry more about Terrible Things happening to me.
I’m not sure what prompted the change. Maybe it was every medical professional I’ve ever met telling me that IT ALL CHANGES WHEN YOU TURN 40.
Or I could blame my parents. These days, virtually every conversation is about how some relative or family friend has died, or been diagnosed with something dreadful.
More truthfully, it could be our family history. Two of my brothers died young – one in his 20s, the other in his 30s. Overtaking your siblings is a pretty scary business, and the closer I got to 40, the more I found myself considering my own mortality.
Trauma and the GP’s Surgery
Considering my obsession with Terrible Diseases, I don’t often need to see my doctor.
I happened to be there for a check-up yesterday, and my GP mentioned that my pulse was quite fast. Before I could really focus on whether or not I have a heart defect, he pointed out that, “It’s probably because you’re feeling anxious.”
I admitted that, yes, I was trying very hard not to FREAK THE F-CK out after spending 30 minutes in the waiting room. They have one of those NHS video screens and it was a never-ending loop of educational cartoon characters reminding me that it’s super easy to think you’ve got a cold, but actually be dying of sepsis.
When you are someone who tends to worry about health, it’s hard. Because the Terrible Things? They’re everywhere. Internet forums and magazine ads and those stupid little pictures at the end of online articles. You know – those ones with a picture of a foot and a caption saying FIVE DEADLY SIGNS OF CANCER. I know they’re nonsense but I also know that picture will lodge somewhere in my brain and sooner or later, I’ll notice a mark on my foot, and panic that it’s one of the five deadly signs. Books, even those aimed at kids, are all about keeping us informed.
So I avoid such things. But in a doctor’s waiting room, they’re unavoidable. Stupid screens and stupid leaflets. Ugh.
According to my GP, this sort of thing happens all the time to loads of people. He told me that I’m basically healthy and said no, I’m probably not in early menopause, it’s typical for periods to be a bit weird at my age. You know, because IT ALL CHANGES WHEN YOU TURN 40.
It wasn’t my finest moment. But probably better than the time I arrived at the GP’s convinced I was dying of cervical cancer. Seriously, I’d been Googling UK survival rates for two days and worrying about who would care for my child when I was gone. Dramatic? Me?
Anyway, while the GP examined me to try and find the cause of my unexplained bleeding, he happened to ask when my last period was. I lay back, counting in my head, and couldn’t bring myself to admit it had been … 30 days earlier. *cough*
In my defence, YES, I am a bit weird and irrational. But I’m not alone in that.
I’m convinced that the daily avalanche of health information (and sensationalism) must be freaking lots of us out. Right? Right??
Coping with Health Anxiety
Luckily, as it goes, my hypochondria is pretty mild, and occasional. Health anxiety tends to be something that rears its head when I know I need to see a doctor for some reason. Then it quietens down until my next encounter with the medical world.
I should note here that if health anxiety is affecting your personal life, or preventing you from accessing medical advice when it’s needed, then you may want to look into professional support. Also, this blog post from Forever Amber is also a fabulous place to start if you’re struggling to manage health anxiety.
Personally, though, I find there are a few things that help me keep my worries in check.
Find a Great GP
Probably the most important is having a good doctor. I once had a GP who told me cheerfully, “Of course, you can have a normal ECG one day and drop dead of a heart attack the next day!”
This was not a good doctor (for me).
My GP is great at reminding me it’s entirely okay to be nervous. He’s also good at understanding I don’t just want advice about the thing I HAVE but also reassurance about the thing I’m secretly worried I MIGHT have. Although I can see any of the doctors at our local surgery, I always make my appointments with the doctor I’m most comfortable with.
Ditch Doctor Google
My second tip if you’re suffering with health anxiety is to limit exposure to health related media, especially the more sensational kind.
If I need to check symptoms, I stick to the NHS website. The advice there is all peer-reviewed and factual. Doctor Google is not a friend to people like me.
I’ve also adjusted my Facebook settings to limit health-related content and I definitely steer clear of extreme medical reality shows. I find they just plant little seeds that pop up when I’m feeling anxious weeks or months later.
Most of my friends are pretty understanding, too, and will drop health-related chat if I tell them it’s starting to freak me out.
The thing about a health niggle is precisely that it niggles. You’re supposed to be working but you’re really wondering if that tingling sensation in your foot is just because you’re sitting weirdly — or is it an early sign of MS?
If I’m experiencing a spell of health anxiety, distraction is my best friend. Sometimes that means binging on a box-set – something like GBBO is perfect because it’s nice people being nice to each other while making nice things. Or I’ve started to use guided meditations, which are a useful way to firstly relax about your negative thoughts, and then start to quiet them.
The most important thing for me in terms of managing stress in all its forms (including health anxiety – NHS link) is exercise. I try and swim twice a week and walk the dog most days.
When I’m stressed, I have a tendency to hunch over, and my chest starts to feel tight. That’s not great if you’re someone who tends to worry about twinges and pains.
Getting into the fresh air helps to relax my body – and that relaxes my mind. Swimming also gives me headspace. While I’m focusing on laps and the music, I can’t worry about work, or relationships, or my health anxiety!
I’m convinced exercise is a great way to keep any health worries in check. I’m not 100% sure of the science, but I reckon it calms down an over-active mind and nervous system. Pushing my body also shows me it’s getting stronger, and working as it should. It’s a daily reminder that I’m doing okay.
The good news – and there is some – is that apparently everything changes again when you’re approaching 50.
Hopefully in another decade, my body and subconscious will come up with a fun new quirk. But for now, I’m learning to live with my health anxiety.
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