Writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".
My body is trying to kill me.
The racing pulse and shooting pains in my chest are surely signs of a heart attack.
Sometimes my head feels like it’s being squeezed in a vice and I presume a brain aneurysm is imminent.
When my muscles begin to ache, and the fatigue sets in, I fall down a Google search rabbit hole.
Do I have motor neurone disease? Multiple sclerosis? This could be one of at least a dozen forms of cancer.
The exhaustive search for ‘what the hell is wrong with me’ has been a white-knuckle ride since I was a kid. I was 10-years-old when I developed a rash that I quickly concluded was a rare, and most probably fatal, disease.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
Over the years, I’ve diagnosed myself with everything from anthrax to zinc poisoning. None of it was real. But it didn’t stop me worrying that I was one sneeze away from certain death.
I know now that these aches, pains and weird sensations in my body are not actually going to kill me – they’re a physical manifestation of anxiety. But for a long time, I worried that this fixation on my health was a uniquely peculiar pastime that made me, well, just a little bit mad.
Turns out I’m not alone.
Clinical psychologist, Jill Newby, is one of Australia’s leading experts on health anxiety and her research suggests up to six per cent of the population struggle with it – that’s around 1.5 million Australians. And the more anxious you are as a person, the more likely you are to worry about the state of your health.
“We can all have a symptom or a sensation in our body that we’re not sure about and we might jump to the worst-case scenario – that is normal and very common,” Dr Newby said. “It’s when those worries become intense and uncontrollable and persistent and they cause distress or disruption to your daily activities, that’s probably when something’s become a bit out of the ordinary.”
So how do you know when your medical worries merit a trip to the doctor and when it’s just your mind playing tricks on you?
Dr Newby said learning to understand your body and your recurring thought patterns can help you spot the difference. “If you’re experiencing a symptom when you’re stressed, and you notice that it goes away when you’re feeling a bit more relaxed and in control then that can be a sign that it’s stress-related,” she explained. “If it persists outside of those times then we might recommend talking to your doctor about it.”
Health anxiety or illness anxiety disorder – once dismissed as hypochondria – is defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a preoccupation with the fear of illness, which is persistent and lasts for six months or more.
Other symptoms can include repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or avoiding doctors and hospitals for fear of coming into contact with germs or sick people. People who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse or had serious illness in their family growing up are more likely to be at risk of developing illness anxiety.
Its onset later in life is often triggered by stressful events or watching a loved one go through a serious health scare. New parents can also sometimes struggle with excessive health worries – because nothing brings your own mortality into sharp focus quite like having a child.
And the internet age has certainly not helped, with a dizzying array of misinformation available at the click of a button. I can’t count how many times I’ve found myself wading through the weeds of Reddit’s sub-threads looking for answers on the latest unexplained lump, bump or niggle in my body.
But ‘Dr Google’ is rarely our friend, and Dr Newby cautions against online self-diagnosis of medical concerns.
“We see a lot of people who will seek reassurance or information from the internet, and we understand that this may be because they’ve felt dismissed by their doctor, and searching for symptoms online can feel less stigmatising, but it actually exacerbates and contributes to health anxiety.”
The good news is that health anxiety is treatable, and treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy can help retrain your brain not to jump to the worst-case scenario.
“That could be thought challenging or just listing other alternative explanations for a symptom,” Dr Newby said. “If you have a headache the worst-case scenario might be thinking that you have a brain tumour when there can be many other more benign explanations like dehydration, stress or concentrating too much on the computer.”
So if you’re starting to obsess about medical worries – put down your phone, just breathe and know that you’re not alone. Health anxiety isn’t much fun, but it is quite common, and you can get help.
Tips for coping with health anxiety:
- Find a GP you can trust, who listens to your concerns and can rule out any underlying medical problems.
- Cut down on your ‘Dr Google’ time. Don’t attempt to self-diagnose.
- Learn more about treatments available for health anxiety, including cognitive behavioural therapy, to help identify your patterns and alleviate symptoms. MindSpot, who offer support for adults experiencing difficulties with anxiety, stress, depression and low mood, is a great starting point.