Health anxiety is an anxiety disorder that actually falls under the spectrum of obsessive-compulsive disorders. Health anxiety, formerly known as hypochondriasis, is when you spend so much time worrying that you’re ill or getting ill that it starts to take over your life.
But it’s so much more than worrying you got the flu.
It’s obsessing over every little symptom, so much so that you start to experience phantom symptoms. It’s frequently checking your body for signs of illness that may not actually be there, over and over throughout the day.
It’s constantly seeking reassurance from people that you’re OK and visiting the doctor numerous times, even though you never believe them when they say you’re fine. It’s confiding in Dr. Google and leaving the internet more terrified than you started — and avoiding anything to do with your fears.
It’s so much more than just worrying. And I wish people knew that.
Four years ago, I was an 18-year-old woman making multiple visits to my doctor over the course of the year for chronic weight loss, intense stomach cramps, chronic constipation, and rectal bleeding.
For each symptom, I was ignored — told it was just my periods. It was the same thing at every appointment, with nobody agreeing to investigate further. All this also resulted in me becoming anorexic.
Then, a week into 2015, I quickly fell very sick. I was going to the toilet with acidic diarrhea about 40 times a day. I was in and out of consciousness. My stomach hurt like never before. I went to the ER three times and was sent home each time. One doctor told me to “eat more bananas” for added fiber.
It wasn’t until I went to a doctor who wasn’t my usual one that they took my temperature and panicked that I might have appendicitis. I was quickly admitted to the hospital and underwent keyhole surgery to have my appendix removed.
But my appendix wasn’t the problem.
After the surgery, I continued to get sicker. I was on maximum pain relief. I couldn’t tell you how often I was using the toilet. I was weak and skinny, and I thought I was going to die.
And then, 6 days later while lying in my hospital bed, I heard a popping sound coming from my abdomen. The next thing I remember, I was being wheeled down to the operating room.
My large intestine had been removed because my bowel had been perforating. I was told I had been just 20 minutes from death. The histology report showed that I, throughout my year of misdiagnoses, in fact had severe ulcerative colitis.
Ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease, can actually be treatable with medication in its earlier stages. Had I been listened to at those doctor visits, had I been taken seriously earlier, had someone believed me, my surgery most likely would have been prevented.
You might think it was the near-death experience that led me to having health anxiety — but it wasn’t.
I’m not afraid of dying. What led me to this life of constant panic over my health was everything that happened before that: a journey of constant misdiagnoses that ended with a major, life-changing surgery.
I now panic that the doctors are always getting it wrong. In the same way many people with health anxiety worry about cancer or brain tumors, I panic about meningitis and septicemia, because I know that these things, if they get severe enough, can lead to things like amputation. I panic about experiencing misdiagnosis until I fall dangerously ill and have to go under the knife again for a life-changing surgery.
Despite having a solid reason for my fears, I still feel silly when I tell people about my health anxiety. Because when I talk about it, people make me feel like I’m overreacting. Like I’m being dramatic. Like I’m seeking attention.
Ex-partners have also been quick to tell me that I’m overreacting and that I’m being stupid.
“Stupid.” That’s the one word I’ve heard over and over again as a response. It’s hard, because deep down, a part of me knows that maybe I am being “stupid,” but my fears are so overwhelming, so loud, that I can’t ignore them.
It shouldn’t matter how “stupid” they are. They’re incredibly real to me.
The occasions where I have been made to feel this way by friends, partners, family, and even doctors — despite them being the main reason for my fears — have been numerous.
I remember sitting in the doctor’s office worrying about my heart because I had been tachycardic for weeks. I told him I was having upper quadrant pain and I wanted my heart looked at because something was wrong. He laughed — yes, physically laughed — and said there was no way I needed any tests. I was “too young” to have anything wrong with my heart. He said I was just a hypochondriac.
I left the office feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I got into my car and cried.
A month later, I received a diagnosis of glandular fever and hepatitis, which was causing the fast heart rate and quadrant pain.
I just need them not to treat me like the doctors who have ignored and misdiagnosed me. I wish people would treat me with more respect and look at health anxiety as the very real, very debilitating illness it is. I wish someone would open their arms and let me cry on their shoulder or just let me sit there for 15 minutes and get all the irrational fears out of my head.
And I wish people would realize and understand why it has developed and that my feelings and fears are extremely valid. My fears come from a place of trauma and distrust, and I need help getting that trust back.
It’s so easy to laugh when you assume someone is being overdramatic. But I’m not. I’m so desperately terrified of going through another traumatic experience that I’ve become hypervigilant and overly self-aware.
Don’t act like I’m crazy. Don’t make me feel stupid. Understand why I’m reacting the way I am and offer me some words of encouragement. It would be way more helpful when dealing with this trauma head-on.
When I’m made to feel as though I’m being irritating or annoying, it makes me feel embarrassed and ashamed. If I felt more supported, perhaps I would feel more inclined to rationalize things.
I’ve dealt with my health anxiety with therapy. I don’t need any extra therapists in my life. I don’t need around-the-clock care. I don’t need you to diagnose me or listen to me for hours on end.
All I need are friends and family who will be there for me when things get tough, who will be there for me in that hour of need, who won’t reject me or ridicule me or make me feel worse than I already do. All I need is a friend who’ll pick me up like they would anyone else when things are bad.
I need someone who will acknowledge my fears even if they think they’re silly. I need to not be made to feel ridiculous. I need those who love me to remind me that they love me, so I know I’m not alone. I need a friend who will pop round for a cup of coffee to distract me from my fears, because sometimes the best way to have a break from health anxiety is to be distracted be something else.
All I really need is someone who will make me feel like my fears are valid. That I am valid. And someone who won’t leave when things get tough.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes to diminish stigma and to encourage others to speak out. Follow her on Twitter.