Health Anxiety is not new. In Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian comic classic, Three Men in a Boat, one episode tells how “J,” the hero, experiences extreme health anxiety. After reading a medical dictionary, he convinces himself that he is suffering from every illness in the book, except housemaid’s knee. He goes to his doctor, who examines him, tells him there is nothing wrong with him, and prescribes a diet of beef and beer, lots of exercise, and eight hours sleep a night. Since this is humorous fiction, “J” goes home reassured—and cured.
In real life, however, health anxiety (also known as hypochondriasis) is no laughing matter. And nowadays we have access to far more, and far more frightening, information about all aspects of health and medical treatment than a mere medical dictionary.
Sufferers from health anxiety live in constant fear that they may have or may develop some painful, debilitating, perhaps fatal condition. They must be vigilant about their health because otherwise they might succumb to a disease that could have been prevented or cured if caught early. They are highly sensitive to any change in their bodies and liable to misinterpret normal, harmless symptoms as evidence of serious illness. For instance, a recurring headache might make you fear that you have a brain tumour; a dull pain in your abdomen could be an early sign of colon cancer. If you do some research, you are likely to come across alarming and sensationalised stories about people who neglected such warning signs.
Fear and constant monitoring of physical symptoms can make them worse, and so your anxiety increases. You may go to your doctor, and your doctor, after examining you and perhaps doing various tests, may reassure you that you are healthy. But the relief that you feel at this news is only temporary, and your worries soon return.
It is unfortunately characteristic of health anxiety that sufferers constantly seek reassurance from doctors, friends, or family, but are not comforted for long because they have not learned to tame their fears themselves.
Treatment of health anxiety therefore aims to help you cope with your fears and be able to reassure yourself. It may be useful to explore what it is that you fear most, whether that is being incapacitated, intractable pain, death, or the consequences to those you love. It may be necessary to challenge such magical thinking as, “If I am watchful and keep checking my body for signs of illness, I will not get sick.” The objective will always be to help you stop worrying and start living.