For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from some form of anxiety.
As early as fourth grade, mental illness affected the way I functioned. For instance, every morning on the way to the school bus, I felt compelled to step out of my front door with a certain foot. At the end of the day, it was incredibly important that I re-enter my home using the opposite foot.
Occasionally, I would forget which foot I started my day with. And on those days, a crushing sense of doom would overtake me. A few times after school, my mother found me standing outside the doorway in a complete panic.
“Honey, what are you doing? Come inside.”
“Mom, do you remember if I started my day on my left foot or my right foot?”
“What are you talking about? I don’t know. Come inside, it’s raining!”
“Mom, try to remember, please! Left or right?”
Looking back, it’s obvious to me just how ridiculous that fear was. But at the time, my brain wasn’t working normally. I was convinced that I was in very real danger, all because I started my day off on the wrong foot. Literally.
As I got older, my anxiety took on a more common manifestation: hypochondriasis (more recently coined “health anxiety”). According to the DSM-IV, health anxiety has three common presentations: disease conviction, disease fear, and bodily preoccupation. And boy, was I a textbook case.
When my anxiety peaked in college, I became hyperaware of every tummy growl, random nerve pain, and tight muscle. I would feel a twinge in my shoulder, and become convinced (thank you, internet!) that this new “symptom” pointed to a horrible illness that was secretly killing me.
And so, I found myself in the ER more times than I can count.
Usually, I was told that there was nothing wrong with me, and it was “all in my head.” I was sent out the door with a referral to a psychiatrist, which I would promptly throw in the trash, because clearly that hospital was missing a rare diagnosis. I just needed to find my own, personal Dr. House. He would save me!
So I’d go for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth.
And this manifestation of my anxiety became such a problem that I was skipping class to see specialists for a disease that was not at all present in my body. It’s hard for me to admit this now, because frankly, it’s embarrassing. Even knowing what I know now — that I had a valid mental illness that warped my thought processes, that psychosomatic symptoms can cause real pain, and that anxiety changed the way my brain operated — I feel ashamed.
But the thing is, I shouldn’t. Hypochondriasis is a fairly common manifestation of stress. At least 3% of the general population is affected by this disorder, and it affects women 4 times as often as men. Maybe it’s because women are affected most that health anxiety is often stigmatized. You’ve probably seen a TV show in which a hypochondriac is painted as attention-seeking or dramatic. I’ve seen plenty.
And the sad thing is, that is completely opposite of their reality.
From personal experience, I can tell you that my preoccupation with illness had nothing to do with wanting attention. I didn’t want to fail a college course out of fear that I was dying. I wanted to be healthy, happy, and thriving. But my brain chemistry was altered in such a way that I was no longer in control of my thoughts. And those thoughts cascaded in dark and scary ways.
Thankfully, I eventually ended up getting the help I needed for my anxiety. Now if I get a case of the hiccups and find myself Googling rare and deadly illnesses, I know it’s time for a mental health checkup. Because the thing is, hypochondriacs aren’t attention-seekers. They are truly suffering from disordered thinking that is impossible to shut down.
I had an actual, treatable illness. I couldn’t just “suck it up” or “stop worrying.” It took medication to normalize my brain chemistry, alleviate my stress, and resolve my preoccupation with illness so that I could actually enjoy my life and be present in the moment.
Hypochondriasis, health anxiety, whatever you want to call it — it’s real. Very real.
It’s all-consuming and terrifying.
And those who suffer are deserving of empathy and care.
Not stigma. Not shame. Just support.