As a dedicated hypochondriac, there is no point at which I would not consider calling the doctor. What for most people is a season hazard or a sign of lack of sleep would have me dialing 999. The slightest headache or wave of nausea are an immediate sign of impending doom, gloom or death.
As a tragic consequence of this, my internet history is essentially an endless and lists of NHS summative information articles. When it gets really bad, sensationalist sites such as netdoctor creep closer to the top of the list. These sites generally feed my fears and act as a kind of source of addiction, just like any pill that I’ve taken – which was no doubt prescribed as a placebo in the first place. The pills may well help to completely cure what was originally thought to be cancer but what was in reality a product of excessive eating, drinking or worrying. But cure is a strong word.
According to NHS statistics, this “health anxiety” take up approximately £2 billion of UK health spending per annum alone. It’s worse over the pond: our paranoid American friends spend around $20 billion every year on unnecessary medical examinations. For myself and all my kind, I can only apologise.
It gets worse. Compare £2 billion with the £9.4 billion that the UK spends on cancer in 2011, both from private and public funds. Hypochondriasis, the medical term for a disease most people roll their eyes at, accounts for more than a fifth of that spent on Cancer. We are a paranoid force to be reckoned with. Perhaps one could still argue that it is a ridiculous force or an unimportant one, but £2 billion implies it is slightly more than just moany people being silly again.
If you consider that most people who are hypochondriacs probably don’t truly realise that they have any anxiety about health and that it, in its most serious form, is linked to anxiety and depression, then it becomes clear that such an issue is in need of legitimate attention. I am confident that had I not written this feature and were instead reading it for the first time, I would stop here and immediately book myself into the counsellor with self-diagnosed bipolar disorder.
Yet self assessment is difficult, especially for someone like me. It was surprising to find, when researching this topic, that the NHS’ guidance on whether you are a hypochondriac or not is quite heavy-going. People are taking this seriously, it seems. They do not ask the expected list of questions: “do you sometimes think you’re ill but find out that you’re not?”, “How many times a day do you take your own temperature?”. Instead the six questions, to which you have to answer mostly ‘yes’, ask whether you have been preoccupied with having a serious illness which has lasted at least six months; whether this preoccupation has distressed you or impacted negatively on all areas of your life; whether you felt the need to constantly examine and diagnose yourself; whether you need constant reassurance from doctors and close friends and family; whether you are unconvinced by this reassurance.
From my strident beginnings as a proud hypochondriac, when confront with this terrifying psychological examination. I started to doubt my “dedication”. I even dropped my thermometer. Maybe I have a weird and dangerous strain of hypochondria? … And here we are again, right back to the beginning.
The causes of health anxiety are usually linked to childhood. As my father often puts it, “everything is rather Freudian”. The illness typically can be attributed to experiencing death or trauma in your childhood (no, that’s not my reason), being overly worried about death (again, no), to being exposed to a particular cause of stress (unlikely, to be honest). Either this, or it is linked to depression and anxiety disorder. Maybe I simply just having a “worrier personality”.
Seeing this list, I can’t seem to work mine out – I’m going to put it down to that dangerous depressive strain from before.
After identifying whether these could be a reason for such anxiety, the guidance on treating it is psychological. You may find my saying this bizarre, either because it is obvious to you that health anxiety is a mental affliction or you are wondering what happens to the physical aches and pains which usually come as symptoms of health anxiety and which then serve as a basis for most complaints and night-time web searches.
It is now understood that these are psychologically triggered and thus treating the root seems to be treating the problem. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is the most common source of therapy as it helps you to find ways to cope with and change your reactions to anxious thoughts whilst depending on the reason for such anxiety trauma-focused therapy and psychotherapy are also used. As I said before though, this all sounds a bit serious for our old friend ‘hypochondria’.
However, it is not all doom and gloom: my father is a stalwart and persistent hypochondriac – there are literally boxes of medicine in his house. If you have anything, he knows exactly what you have and supplies a cure. This annoying side-effect of his hypochondria is apparently legitimised by the fact that both his parents were doctors. I have stopped responding with “but you didn’t go through seven years of medical training” because the response is usually more long-winded than worth it. In his case, I’m afraid, it is serious – you cannot see him without some discussion of his recent visit to the nutritionist/dermatologist/insert any other medical professional. However, the anxiety he has over his health, which he denies point blank of course, has finally helped him. He had a huge accident while skiing this Easter breaking three ribs, 2 vertebrae and fracturing part of his pelvis.
One might joke that it’s something of a hypochondriac’s dream, but I think it’s now clear that this is not the case and the matter is much more serious.
The hypochondriac that he is forced us further than the sensible parent ever goes: we wear helmets, get adequate insurance, and don’t drink when skiing for fear of any serious accident, which oddly he didn’t anticipate happening to himself. This was a semi-saving grace – he is not brain-dead, dead nor paralysed. From all the worrying that my father has done and all the ailments he has had, the only advice I can give you that helped him is this: always wear a helmet. I like to think that his hypochondria helped his accident by causing him to take precautions, but I’m not sure the science is linked.
It turns out that I am not the complete madwoman that I suspect I was. Hypochondria may not have serious medical implications upon my body, but it does untold damage upon the mind. The figures cannot be that wrong, and they eye-rolling has got to stop. Where does one self-regulate?
Having written this, almost in spite of myself I swore to change my ways and learn when I am ill and when I am just panicking. To cap it all I even cancelled an appointment with my GP over some ailment or other, finally realising that I am ridiculous and that said ailment was a figment of my imagination. “I will never waste their time or money again, other people need it more”, I promised as I happily sipped my herbal tea, confident in its healing properties and ability to extend my life… Then I felt a wave of nausea and quickly considered calling the doctor back tomorrow, or even today, God help him. Either way, I won’t stay away for long, because, real or not, and no matter what the general opinion towards it is, health anxiety is a force to be reckoned with. The NHS statistics speak for themselves.