‘You’re SUCH a hypochondriac,’ is something I hear far too often. But rather than a serious observation, this is often told to me in jest after I’ve complained yet again I have a headache, or cancelled plans ‘because I’m not feeling very well.’ But actually hypochondria is a very real thing in my life.
For years I’ve worried about my health, but I’ve often overlooked this as something completely normal. But there is nothing normal about my behaviour. Aside from the fact that I visit my GP more than the average person, I had become slowly engrossed in my health – acknowledging every change in my body, Googling frantically what it meant.
However it wasn’t until recently that I actually stopped for a moment, and realised that there was something wrong. This revelation came to me about three weeks ago. It was midnight and my shoulder was really aching. ‘What could this mean?’ I thought to myself, my body starting to get that tingling feeling I often felt… so I typed into my laptop, ‘tingling body and aching shoulder.’ The first page took me to a website for multiple sclerosis. Three hours later I had pored through every MS forum and health check website that I could find. At this point I was a mess, my entire body was pulsing and throbbing, my fingers numb, my heart pounding through my chest. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘These are the early symptoms of a serious disease.’
What I wasn’t acknowledging, was the fact that I was having a panic attack. My body was going into ‘fight or flight’ mode. But this time, rather than dwelling on it, I woke my mum up and let her experience exactly what happens most nights after I shut my bedroom door and go to sleep.
‘You’re always on your phone,’ she’d usually say to me when she’d come into my room in the morning and see my iPhone clutched in the palm of my hand. If only she could see my search history, page after page of health content, lists of symptoms, cancer forums and of course NHS Symptom Checker. Because while she thought I kept myself awake scrolling through Instagram and Twitter, I was in fact sending myself into a state of frenzy.
This has been going on for years, but only recently have I acknowledged that I have something wrong with me. Because while 1 in 4 people in the UK will suffer with a mental health condition at some point in their life, I NEVER thought I’d be one of them. I was not a textbook ‘anxious’ person. I didn’t get worried in social situations, I loved talking in front of large crowds and I never get worried about attending a job interview, travelling on public transport or meeting new people.
But in reality I was ignorant to the fact that health anxiety had slowly taken over my life.
While someone without healthy anxiety might have a headache and think nothing of it, I presume it’s a brain tumour. Last year I had complications and was diagnosed with a common disorder called cervical ectropion, but that didn’t stop me convincing myself I had cervical cancer. It wasn’t until I forced my GP to give me a smear test, four years before I was of the legal age to have one, that my mind was put at ease.
I finally went to the GP about the thoughts racing through my head. This time I didn’t go to them with symptoms I was convinced I had, I told them the truth, shaking as years of secret worries came pouring out. I was referred to a wellbeing centre where I’m currently waiting to start an intense course of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). I’ve been diagnosed with moderate to severe health anxiety.
And while many of you may think that this diagnosis means that I’m able to talk myself out of feelings of panic and unease, you’d be wrong. The only way I can describe it as is a vicious cycle, that I’m my own worst enemy. I told my doctor my fears of MS, and he reassured me saying that the early symptoms of the condition are vision problems. The next day? I was convinced I had blurred vision, noticing spots in my eye. I visited an optician who reassured me that this was normal – but that week it was all I could think about it, the floaters, as they’re medically known as, where ALL I could concentrate on at work. There wasn’t one point where I thought to myself, ‘the only reason I’m thinking this is because I’m trying to find the symptoms in myself.’
I’m writing this blog post two days after visiting Moorfields Eye Hospital, one of, if not the best, eye hospital in Europe. They dilated my pupils, turning me blind for around six hours. The eye doctor checked the back of my eyes, ‘it’s so nice as an eye specialist to see such healthy eyes,’ she told me. The only thing that was wrong that my eyes were very dry – a result of spending hours in front my computer and phone a day.
It was all fine. No brain tumours, no abnormal nerves, no retinal detachment. I was healthy. I sobbed to her when she told me, I was exhausted.
I am exhausted.
For years I feel as though I’ve been battling with myself, growing increasingly tired of checking, noticing, monitoring, stressing, seeking reassurance, not sleeping. I’ve become so hypersensitive to changes in my body I constantly feel every eye tick, leg muscle twitch, random pain in my head, floaters in my eye.
The headaches, and shakiness and tingling, and blurring vision and pins and needles, and aches and pains weren’t symptoms of a deadly disease, they were symptoms of anxiety and stress. Anxiety I’d avoided to consider because I had become so engrossed in jumping to conclusions and catastrophising an illness I didn’t actually have.
I have a long way to go in terms of managing my health anxiety, but the biggest step I’ve taken is finally acknowledging that there is something wrong with my mental health and seeking help to overcome it.
For more information of anxiety and how to deal with it, mind.org.uk/