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Is Health Anxiety the New Pandemic?

If someone had told us in November 2019 that in a few months' time, we’d all be locked in our houses, under government jurisdiction, hiding from a reported killer flu virus we’d have laughed, wouldn’t we? We’d have said it sounded like the plot of a far-fetched, badly dubbed Netflix series.

But it wasn’t was it? It was as real as real life can get. And the shock of it, the sheer trauma, hit us all in different ways at different times. For me personally, I remember the visceral panic I felt watching Spain and France bringing their troops out onto the street to enforce people to stay at home, warning that they needed papers signed to be allowed to go out to buy food.

I remember seeing Italy on the news, the patients spilling out of the hospitals, dying on trolleys in the corridors. All the while our newsreaders solemnly warned us in the UK that we were about three weeks behind them on the dreaded curve.

It felt like waiting for the apocalypse and I just didn’t understand how calm some people still seemed to be, how confident they were that it was going to pass their town or their family by.

We had just moved into a big old crumbling wreck of a house and in the weeks before the lockdown, we had tradesmen in desperately trying to make it habitable for us in the event of them not being able to continue work. Every time I heard one of them whistle (tradesmen whistle a lot), it staggered me. Did they not know the world was going to end?

By the time the lockdown came, I was surprisingly calm and accepting. But that’s when I saw a lot of people buckle under the pressure, the insidious paranoia of thinking a killer virus was on every surface you touched and in every breath, you inhaled.

Psychologists say it will be decades before we know the true emotional and societal after-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s not something our twenty-first-century brains were wired for or prepared for in any way. Even now that for most of us, the fear has subsided and life feels back to normal there are lingering issues which we might not even be aware are linked to our pandemic experience.

One of these issues, unsurprisingly, is a huge increase in health anxiety. And for people who already suffered from what used to be known as ‘hypochondria’, Covid 19 has been a huge trigger. Health anxiety which was once under control now has the potential to spiral dramatically. A study carried out in conjunction with Oxfordshire NHS trust found that like so many health issues, there is a gender divide here too. Females were at much greater risk of suffering from health anxiety; being the main caregiver in lots of households, needing to be mindful of the health of their children and possibly ageing parents too, means women are under greater amounts of stress, spending more time worrying about the health of family members than men are.

Of course, at the very outset, health anxiety can be a positive, productive thing. There’s a reason why lots of women's cancers have an earlier detection rate. One of the factors is that when women start to worry about their health they’re much more likely to go and get checked out by a doctor. Men, who have lower levels of health anxiety, tend to let niggling issues get swept under the carpet.

So what exactly is health anxiety? And how might we find ways to cope if we’re struggling with it?

What is Health Anxiety?

Health anxiety refers to a person being preoccupied with becoming ill. This can take the form of increased anxiety around picking up colds and stomach bugs, all the way through to worrying about serious illnesses like cancer or cardiac arrests. Health anxiety can also be a smaller strand of other mental illnesses such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Health anxiety is categorised in two ways by medical professionals. Firstly there are ‘somatic symptom disorders. This refers to people who are exhibiting real, tangible mental and/or physical symptoms and are terrified of what they might indicate. Secondly, there are sufferers of ‘illness anxiety disorders’, usually seen in people who do not have symptoms but who live in a general state of fear about becoming ill. The fact that Covid could be deadly and contagious without people being symptomatic is a reason for an increase in this particular type of health anxiety, according to an article in the International Journal of Cognitive Therapy.

It may well be that people exhibit signs of the two different conditions at different stages of their life, depending on which other stressors they happen to be under. They’re not mutually exclusive!

Having suffered from emetophobia (fear of vomiting) most of my life I know just how debilitating it can be to live in fear of an illness which can seem like it’s constantly lurking, taunting you. But how do we know the difference between the odd intrusive thought and a serious case of health anxiety? I mean… let’s be honest here. Who hasn’t had a bog-standard headache and found themselves googling brain tumour symptoms? It’s human nature to sweat the small stuff from time to time, isn’t it?

The NHS website states that there are some key symptoms to look out for if you think you’re a sufferer. These include:

  • Constantly worrying about your health

  • Frequently checking your body for lumps and rashes

  • Need regular reassurance that you’re not ill

  • Worry that your doctor has missed something

  • Obsessively read health stories in the news or documentaries on TV

  • Act as if you’re ill (ie avoid certain activities)

So what proactive steps can we take if we are suffering from Health Anxiety?

Some of us are just more finely attuned to our bodies and any changes in them. Again, this can be a really positive thing, a tool for the early detection of certain diseases. However, if we are obsessively scrutinising our bodies and our health things can quickly feel overwhelming.

Some tips to help ease anxiety are:

If you’re worried about specific symptoms then always visit your doctor. More often than not, it is not the thing we’ve been fearing, but something much more innocuous. Having the all-clear from a medical professional is not only important for our physical health but also is very reassuring mentally and may help you put your fears to one side.

Prioritise a good sleep! As we all know, we are not at our most rational if we are tired and this might lead to us not being able to be realistic about whether we are truly feeling ill or just anxious.

Look at your health fears as part of the bigger picture. If there’s a chance that you are under undue amounts of stress, try techniques such as meditation and low-impact relaxing exercises such as Yoga and Tai Chi. Creating a generally more relaxed state of mind may well help to dial down your health fears.

Talk to trusted friends or family about what’s going on in your head. With rates of reported health anxiety up by 25%, you might discover that when you confide in them, they admit they’re having similar thoughts and feelings themselves.

Set boundaries for yourself. We all experienced different levels of isolation during Covid and if you now find that a packed commuter train triggers you into a spiral of health-related worry, look at other ways to travel, at least until you feel your health anxiety is under control. Do what makes you feel safe, even if that means returning to ‘normal’ at a slower pace than your peers.

If you feel your health anxiety is crowding your brain, stopping you from sleeping, reducing your productivity at work or making you emotionally volatile, then don’t be afraid to access mental health support. Talking therapy can have a huge positive impact and your doctor will be able to signpost you to the best form of counselling or treatment for you.

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