Health Anxiety

Hypochondria is an anxiety disorder that focuses specifically around health. A hypochondriac is someone who excessively worries about their health and drastically overestimates the severity of aches and pains in their body, often imagining the worst case scenario.

As an example, the average person who gets a headache will take a headache pill or drink a glass of water and get on with their day without giving it a second thought. On the other end of the spectrum, a hypochondriac who gets a headache will obsess over whether they maybe have a brain tumour. They will Google their symptoms and inevitably come across rare and unlikely diseases and convince themselves that their fate is doomed. This may result in panic attacks or depression.

To the average person, hypochondria may seem absurd and they may be tempted to ridicule hypochondriacs and make of derisive remarks. To the hypochondriac, health anxiety is no laughing matter though. It’s not just the obvious kooks that suffer, but seemingly normal people may experience severe health anxiety in secret. Your loved ones could be experiencing stress over their health without you even knowing. That said, it is wise to reign in those wise-cracks and have a bit of compassion.

I used to be a hypochondriac. If I had pain in my arm, my mind would go ‘heart attack’. If my throat was dry, my mind would go ‘anaphylaxis’. ‘If I had a pain in my leg, my mind would go ‘deep vein thrombosis’. I would try suppress the macabre thoughts that popped in my head, but you will find that if you try desperately not to think of something, that is all you will end up thinking about.

Cognitive Behavioural Psychology books call these thoughts ‘NATs’ which stands for ‘Negative Automatic Thoughts’. The trick is not to try and suppress them but to instead challenge them. Challenge them for legitimacy. Say to yourself ‘What is the likelihood of this being a brain tumour over a common headache?’ Tell yourself ‘Surely a common headache is the most likely diagnosis, so fretting over this is waste of time. In fact, even if it is a brain tumour, panicking still solves nothing’. If you can’t reasonably convince yourself of the most obvious diagnosis, then visit a doctor, but don’t allow panic to set up camp in your brain.

Furthermore, don’t watch medical programs like ‘House’ where the episodes focus on rare diseases. You don’t need that floating around your head. Visiting websites like WebMD and MayoClinic can also be a step in the wrong direction. I’ve often visited these sites to verify symptoms and come away thinking I had ‘lupus’ or some other nasty disease.

For more info on how to overcome health anxiety, read my book How I Overcame Panic Disorder Without Drugs