Health anxiety is a pretty lonely condition to have.
It’s something very few people can understand, or relate to, for one thing. Many people struggle to see hypochondria as an illness – even a mental health one – and instead see it as, well, a bit silly, really. Something you can – and should – be able to “just snap out of”, at will. Of course, it doesn’t work like that (I mean, IF ONLY!), but, because it’s (understandably) hard for “normal” people to understand, or empathize with, it can be easy for the health anxiety sufferer to feel like they’re the only person in the world who’s ever felt this way. Fun times, huh?
Here are just a few of the things people with health anxiety know…
Statistics are meaningless
Because health anxiety isn’t always a rational fear, it’s impossible to rationalise someone out of it. It’s a little bit like fear of flying, really: every time I tell someone I’m frightened of flying, I can guarantee they’ll say one of two things to me: it’ll be either…
a) “It’s the safest form of transport, you know!”
b) “You have more chance of being killed in your car on the way to the airport!” (Which, thanks, you just made me scared of driving now, too: awesome!)
Now, both of these statistics are correct, as it happens, but here’s the thing: they’re not remotely reassuring, because the fact is, when you hit turbulence at 20,000 feet, flying really doesn’t FEEL like the safest form of transport, does it? No, it feels like being trapped in a tin can, high above the earth, heading for certain death. Health anxiety, as it happens, feels a bit like that, too, although normally without the “20,000 feet” bit. So, when I discover a symptom that scares me, it really doesn’t matter how many times people try to rationalise me out of feeling terrified about it: quite simply, my brain doesn’t work like that – so, while you can look at the fact, and assess the risk level as result of that, I can only go by how I feel about it … and my risk level is always, always at DEFCON 1.
Another reason you can’t rationalise someone out of health anxiety is that we have an answer for everything – a scary one, natch. If you’re worried about a certain illness, say, and someone tells you it would be “almost impossible” for you to have it, while everyone else focuses on the word “impossible”, the person with health anxiety is going to hone right in on that “almost”. Almost impossible isn’t the same as pain old impossible, is it? So, basically, if something is almost impossible, that means it is, in fact, possible. And, for hypochondriacs, it’s just a very short leap from possible to probable. That “rare” disease that only 1 in a million people get? Someone has to be that one person, don’t they? And a one-in-a-million chance is still a chance – so why shouldn’t that person be YOU?
(Oddly, this kind of logic doesn’t extend to things like winning the lottery: I know I will never win the lottery, but I DO think there’s a pretty good chance of me catching that super-rare disease…)
Knowing you sound crazy doesn’t stop you sounding crazy
If you read the paragraph above, and thought, “Wow, that logic is INSANE!” you should know that I think that, too: and so do most of the other people I know who suffer from health anxiety. We KNOW we’re not being logical. We know we’re being annoying. We just don’t know how to stop it. We are very sorry about that.
It doesn’t matter how many times you experience a particular symptom…
… you’re still going to be convinced that THIS time will be the time it turns out to be something serious. Because it COULD be, right? I mean, look at what happened to the boy who cried “wolf”! Speaking of which:
Health anxiety doesn’t protect you from actual illness
If you’ve had health anxiety for any length of time, you’re probably used to being treated a bit like the boy who cried wolf by the people who have to listen to you obsess over the same old thing, over and over again. What people with health anxiety understand, though, is just because it didn’t turn out to be something serious the OTHER 1,001 times we obsessed over that symptom, it doesn’t mean it won’t be something serious THIS time. I know that sounds like the kind of twisted logic that people use to justify their anxiety, and not have to deal with it, but it’s true: hypochondriacs get sick, too.
The worst-case scenario will always sound like the most probably one
I used to have a stupid, superstitious belief that the more I worried about something, the less likely it would be to actually happen to me – because, seriously, how likely would it be that the very thing I’d spent all of that time worrying about would actually come to pass? Then the very thing I’d been worrying about DID come to pass, and I realised that sometimes the worst-case scenario really does happen to people – no matter how unlikely it seems. I’m not so superstitious any more… and if you give me a list of 20 possible causes for whatever symptom it is I’m obsessing over, I’ll go straight to the most serious one, and dismiss all the rest. Every. Single. Time.
When you’re in the middle of a bout of health anxiety, counselling is not going to help you
Counselling really needs to happen BEFORE you discover that worrying symptom, in order for it to have given you the necessary tools to deal with it. If you wait until you’re mid-freak-out, then counselling won’t help you at that point: the only thing that WILL help is getting concrete proof that you do NOT actually have whatever it is you’re worried about. Twice now, I’ve gone to my GP with worrying physical symptoms, only for him to completely ignore the symptoms (both of which DID actually turn out to be something serious) in favour of trying to counsel me through my health anxiety. It was so incredibly distressing for me not to be listened to, or taken seriously, that I’m now looking for a new GP: someone who will at least take the time to hear me out, and put my mind at rest about the physical issue before moving on to the mental ones.
What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger either
Seriously, I could name at least 20 things, right off the top of my head, that don’t kill you, but don’t make you stronger either. My experience last December was one of them: no, it didn’t kill me, but it definitely didn’t make me stronger, either – quite the opposite, in fact: afterwards, my anxiety was much, much worse, and I’m now even MORE afraid of hospitals and medical procedures than I was to start with, the experience simply having served to prove to me that I was right to be scared about those things, because they really WERE as bad as I’d always thought they would be.
You can read a lot into just a few words
If you’re speaking to someone with health anxiety, you have to be prepared to have every word you say hyper-analysed, right down to the tone of voice you used, and how sincere you looked when you said it. If we detect even the slightest hint of doubt in your, “I’m sure it’ll be OK!”, we will grill you like the KGB. If you slip up, and say something like, “I’m pretty sure it’ll be OK!” then you may as well have just said, “Hey, dude, looks like you’re going to die soon!” I mean, seriously.