September 7, 2016

"Health anxiety stopped me from functioning. I became completely obsessed with my health and death, which is why it should not be underestimated or used as a term to throw around lightly."

The term hypochondria gets thrown about a lot when someone's complaining about being ill, as if that's all hypochondria is. Well I can assure you it isn't. Hypochondria, otherwise known as health anxiety, is underestimated.

For months I have been back and forth to the doctors, hospital and out of hours GP, sometimes up to three times a day convinced that I'm terminally ill or that I'm going to instantly drop dead. I've been called an attention seeker, mental, deluded, amongst other hurtful things. Although at times I might seem irrational, to me the symptoms I'm experiencing are very real and when I say I feel like I'm going to die I'm not attention seeking, I genuinely feel that way. Anxiety can cause brain fog where you can't function, tingling sensations in your arms and legs, a racing heart, breathlessness, headaches, muscle tension, amongst many other frightening symptoms. And when anxiety sets in, it can make you feel as though you're going to die.

Finding a lump for anyone is scary but for someone with health anxiety: it confirms your thoughts about your impending death. I found four lumps, so, as you can imagine, I was an absolute state. After numerous tests the doctors confirmed they were harmless swollen lymph nodes. But that didn't settle my worries, I became obsessed prodding them until they got bigger, checking for lumps every hour or so, visiting the doctors more. I stopped eating due to a loss of appetite caused by my anxieties, I started suffering from insomnia due to being terrified of dying in my sleep, all of which made my anxiety worse and my body weaker, causing me to become physically exhausted and heightening my anxiety more by becoming physically ill.

Health anxiety stopped me from functioning. I became completely obsessed with my health and death, which is why it should not be underestimated or used as a term to throw around lightly. It wasn't just my physical health I was worried about though; I became worried about my mental health. I was confused whether the symptoms I was experiencing were real or in my head. I was scared of what was happening to me. I couldn't see a way out or think clearly.

Not long before my health anxiety began my dad, who experienced bipolar disorder, died by suicide. People began warning my mum to keep a close eye on me, informing her that bipolar is genetic and that my family’s poor mental health history may affect me. Of course, that only made things worse for me and I felt as though I was losing control. I couldn't make sense of why I was feeling the way I did, because a lot of it was subconscious. I wasn't thinking myself ill like people said I was, and I’m not bipolar just because my father was. I understand now that those people only had the best intentions for me, but at the time it didn't help.

I started suffering from sleep paralysis, where I would wake up mid dream paralysed unable to move or speak whilst still dreaming, sometimes I'd see my dad’s dead body lying next to me and other times he'd be walking round the room shouting at me. Sleep paralysis made my insomnia worse because not only was I frightened of dying in my sleep, but I was also scared of having sleep paralysis.

The lack of sleep worsened my anxiety: I started becoming scared of other people dying or being ill; I would freak out if someone got something stuck in their throat whilst eating, scared they were going to choke to death; I would harass my epileptic boyfriend on his nights out scared that he would have a fit and die; and I would constantly phone family members to make sure they were OK. My health anxiety pushed everyone close to me away, due to constantly seeking reassurance from others – it was a lot to handle and it had a massive impact on everyone close to me.

That being said it does get easier. For me things got better when I accepted the fact that my dad's death was the root of the problem. That it was my way of grieving. I had tried my hardest to stay strong by focusing on my own health. I have also been lucky enough to have amazing friends and family who have done their absolute all to support me through everything. If I can offer any advice to anyone suffering from health anxiety it would be firstly to admit to yourself you do have a problem – until you do you'll never be convinced by the doctor whose telling you you're not dying. Secondly talk – talk to anyone who'll listen to what you're going through, because it shouldn't be underestimated and talking to someone may help you think more rationally when your anxiety sets in.

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