Health anxiety: Take the funny out of fear
Anxiety can be a truly terrible thing, debilitating, exhausting and robbing you of all pleasure in life. Imagine then also feeling so ashamed of your particular type of anxiety that you don’t ask for help - because what you suffer from is often treated as a bit of a joke.
This is what it can be like for people suffering from health anxiety.
It’s fantastic that so many people, celebs included, are coming forward and admitting to suffering from different forms of anxiety. We hear about struggles with social anxiety or OCD, but it still feels as if there’s a bit of a stigma around health anxiety.
We probably all know someone who’s a "bit of a hypochondriac", always worrying about that pain in their side or a dizzy spell. No one takes them very seriously and even the NHS decided to re-brand hypochondria as health anxiety because it was perceived as such a pejorative term.
Culture hasn’t been kind either. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens frequently poke fun at characters who won’t leave their firesides for fear of catching a cold and who worry about their indigestion. And, in more modern times, it’s still a bit of a laugh - think germaphobes Sheldon in ‘The Big Bang Theory’ or Niles Crane in ‘Frasier.’
But there’s a world of difference between everyday worries about health and health anxiety. This condition can be as paralysing and terrifying as any other form of anxiety - sufferers are often in a constant state of fear, checking themselves for symptoms hundreds of times a day and too scared to lead life as they would like to.
The internet has probably also made things worse, providing an opportunity for the health anxious to spend hours online trying to find reassurance, but usually just worrying themselves further. Equally, as with many other forms of anxiety, there’s avoidance. Some people with health anxiety never visit the doctor, switch off the TV if there’s a programme about health and avoid friends and family when illness strikes.
It’s all-pervading. With social anxiety, you can perhaps avoid the situations which trigger your fears (not that this is recommended) but with health anxiety, it’s all about your body which is ever present, ever changing and therefore always offering up more cause for worry.
If you suffer from health anxiety then you need and deserve help as much as anyone else. You’re not a joke and your pain is not funny.
Ultimately it’s about a threat that we can all understand - after all, we are all going to get ill and die - it’s just that some people are letting this get in the way of their life.
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About Cathryn Bullimore
Cathryn works as a counsellor and psychotherapist in Central and South Manchester. She is particularly interested in helping with all sorts of anxiety and issues around low self esteem.
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