Coping with Health Anxiety in Recovery from Mental Illness
Health anxiety used to be called hypochondria, and it’s a highly stigmatized mental health condition. Instead of being taken seriously, health anxiety is often reduced to being « dramatic. » I have dealt with health anxiety on and off for the last seven years, and I want to share my experience so others won’t have to feel as alone as I have.
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety used to be called hypochondria, and now it’s often called an anxiety disorder, but all of these different names describe one condition. According to the Mayo Clinic, someone with health anxiety worries obsessively that they are or will become severely ill, despite a lack of definitive physical symptoms1. Some people with health anxiety will experience general symptoms like dizziness or headaches, which can increase anxiety, but these symptoms don’t match up with the symptoms of the severe conditions these folks are typically worried about, such as rabies or cancer.
Personally, I don’t usually experience health anxiety about my physical health. I’ve had a few scary evenings where I thought I was having a heart attack or secretly had some kind of brain tumor, but usually my health anxiety revolves around my mental health. When I was in college and first learning about mental illness in my psychology classes, I thought I had depression. Then when I started counseling I took a depression screening online and saw another screening for bipolar, so I took that one too. Then I thought I had bipolar.
When I couldn’t stop thinking about my mental health, I looked up obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), primarily obsessive type, and thought I had that. Then, because I was convinced I had everything I looked up, I thought I had a factitious disorder, previously known as Munchausen syndrome. Eventually I learned the term « health anxiety » and I knew that’s what was going on. Except I couldn’t quite trust myself, because so far, I thought I had everything I’d ever looked up.
This was, and sometimes still is, exhausting. I research conditions obsessively, I learn everything about them, I layer them on top of my life and squint my eyes until it seems like they match up, even if they don’t. And the worst part is, I don’t know how to not do this. I know I have other mental health issues in addition to health anxiety. I know that I have real symptoms that lie outside the realm of anxiety in general. But it’s impossible to explain them to a therapist accurately when I’m looking at my own experience through the lens of a specific disorder I’ve just spent 30 straight hours researching online.
How Health Anxiety Can Derail Recovery
I have been actively working toward mental health recovery since I was 19, and it has been a slow, painful process, in large part because of my health anxiety. Health anxiety completely derails my recovery because it keeps me focused on the label rather than the symptoms or underlying issues. I’ve gotten so used to being scared of having some new mental illness that I actually feel more scared when I’m not anxiously researching different mental illness diagnoses. This means that when my recovery is going really well, when I’m doing the work and improving, I tend to sabotage myself by researching a new condition and convincing myself that I have it and all the work I’ve done so far has been pointless.
Coping with Health Anxiety While In Recovery
For me, my health anxiety is all about validation. I grew up feeling like I wasn’t truly seen for who I was, I was always made to feel weird for my big emotions, and now I’m constantly searching for reasons to explain that weirdness and invisibility. I desperately need to know that it wasn’t my personality that was so bad and weird, it was some kind of illness. Every time I find a new mental health diagnosis that fits, I feel seen and validated for a few glorious seconds. And then I start questioning myself and doubting myself until I feel much worse than I did before I started researching.
It’s only recently that I learned all of this about myself though. And that insight into myself and my needs has been key to coping with my health anxiety. If I tend to obsess over diagnoses because I need validation, but that obsession doesn’t actually make me feel better long-term, then maybe I need to start looking for other ways to meet my needs. Because of this insight, my therapist and I are now working together to help me find healthier forms of validation.
I know not everyone’s health anxiety works like this, but if yours does, take a few minutes to journal. Turn on some soft, classical music, let yourself breathe, and try asking yourself what purpose your health anxiety serves. Ask yourself what you gain from your obsession. Obviously it isn’t healthy overall, but even the most negative coping mechanisms provide something positive, or else we wouldn’t engage in those behaviors. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t judge yourself, just explore your mind with a sense of curiosity and kindness. Write until you stumble upon some answers. Then, find new, healthier ways to get your needs met.
- « Illness Anxiety Disorder. » Mayo Clinic. June 2018