For a healthy 31 year old, I have a bizarre amount of at-home medical supplies. I have three thermometers (one under the tongue, and two inner ear), a blood pressure machine, a finger pulse oximeter (which measures your blood oxygen saturation levels), urine analysis strips, and an array of antibiotics, antiemetics and anti-inflammatories “for emergencies”.
I also like to think of myself as a diagnostic wizard, having accurately diagnosed many friend and family members with illnesses that took weeks (sometimes months) for their doctors to identify. You might assume I did medicine at university, but I didn’t. I’m just a massive hypochondriac.
I’ve spent hours pouring over medical journals and studies about everything from common hereditary conditions to rare tropical diseases, and at the slightest sign of illness, I’ll immediately start sifting through Google to determine my fate. Luckily, there’s never actually been anything much wrong with me. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it constantly until a test result comes back with a definitive answer.
So, you can imagine how the past year and a half has gone down. Even the slightest tickle in my throat and out comes the oxygen monitor and thermometer. And ever since the NHS began offering seven free rapid Covid-19 tests every week, my bathroom has turned into a pop-up clinical laboratory.
While I often joke about it, there have been moments when the anxiety has become overwhelming and with everyone experiencing some level of concern about Covid-19, I’m sure that I’m not the only person with these feelings. We asked Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic for everything we need to know about health anxiety, from the signs to look out for to how to get help.
What is health anxiety?
Health anxiety is very similar to hypochondria, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. Hypochondria is a phobia of illness and worrying about getting ill.
“These days, mental health practitioners tend to use the term health anxiety as it better reflects the condition in terms of the anxiety it causes, whereas hypochondria refers principally to a phobia,” says Dr Spelman.
What are the symptoms of health anxiety?
“In terms of symptoms, the person suffering from health anxiety grows increasingly preoccupied with their health and focuses on physical signs or sensations that they feel could be an indicator that there is something wrong,” explains Dr Spelman.
This often leads to excessive checking of things such as blemishes, pulse rate, blood sugar levels or lumps and bumps incessantly and obsessively as well as researching possible causes. “It differs with everyone and depends on the condition the individual is most concerned about developing, which can change periodically,” she says.
It’s not uncommon for a hypochondriac to become fixated with one illness at one time, especially if the condition has a big presence in their life. For example, if there is a family member with cancer, the hypochondriac might start to worry about whether or not they also have cancer, and in the case of a global pandemic, it’s likely that a hypochondriac would become worried about catching Covid-19.
Has health anxiety become more common as a result of the pandemic?
According to Dr Spelman, the pandemic has resulted in more people seeking help for health anxiety. “In our clinic based in London, we have noticed a definite increase since the start of the pandemic, in the number of clients suffering from this type of anxiety and more people are self-referring with the condition than ever before.”
What’s the treatment for health anxiety?
While it’s natural for a hypochondriac to seek assurances about their health, for example from a doctor or by taking a medical test, Dr Spelman warns that the condition needs longer term treatment.
“It’s important to realise that constantly seeking reassurance about your health, whether from Google or your GP, only provides very short term relief and actually feeds into the problem. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is most often used to treat health related anxiety as it teaches the sufferer how to challenge their beliefs and drop the unhelpful behaviour that feeds into the condition.”