Someone is described as a hypochondriac when they carry anxieties about health, either in general or with specific illnesses. While we all have health anxieties, which can be useful to avoid injury or certain illnesses, the concerns of a hypochondriac are considered disproportionate to the threat. It can become all-consuming and have a significant impact on your everyday life.
Hypochondriasis and anxiety are closely linked – one can lead to the other. This can lead to panic symptoms like fast heart rate, sweating, feeling of impending doom and chest tightness. These symptoms can be mistaken for physical illness and thus perpetuate the cycle further. Hypochondriacs are often frequent attenders at the GP surgery or emergency department, requesting extensive investigations and then worrying that things have been missed. They often do extensive research into a particular symptom or condition, avidly reading medical information online and in the media. They may show avoidance behaviour, steering clear of certain people and places that threaten illness. They may avoid certain information that contradicts their view of the threat an illness poses. They may sometimes act ill and take on the sick role prematurely.
Unfortunately the threat of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated any of these feelings. There has been a very real threat to people’s health, and there have been measures people are encouraged to take to reduce this threat. Taken to a disproportionate degree, this may lead some to be fearful of leaving their home, and feeling very anxious if people around them are not wearing masks or are getting too close. If you are a hypochondriac, every cough, even if just clearing your throat, could represent a fear they have caught COVID-19. They will have read about people admitted to hospital and dying from it. This will occupy thoughts rather than thinking of the majority of people who only get mild symptoms.
Recognising that you are having difficulties, is an important step in recovery. It may be helpful for you to write down your thoughts. This will allow you to revisit them when you are in a different headspace and challenge them appropriately. By, for example, reflecting on whether your symptoms could be related to stress or anxiety instead. Relaxation techniques and mindfulness are often helpful if thoughts are racing and you begin feeling out of control.
Speak to your GP about your symptoms if you feel like your worries are getting out of control and affecting your daily life. They can refer you to psychological counselling where techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are very good at helping people challenge their thoughts. Your doctor may also consider prescribing you anti-anxiety medication, if you both agree that would help.