As I woke up around 4am I noticed a dull aching sensation in my abdomen, otherwise known as tummy ache. Or was it something more sinister? Nope, it was just tummy ache.
Over the last twenty years I’ve become an expert in body analysis. I scan from the top of my head to the tips of my toes searching for anything that feels abnormal. I usually find at least one thing a day.
My anxiety regarding health began at the early age of eight. Let’s blame it on Casualty (the programme not the place.) In one episode a woman knocked her head against a wall and despite Dr Charlie’s protests, she left the hospital. Two hours later she was found dead at home from internal bleeding. I can still remember the exact phrasing; ‘her brain was drowned in blood’ – which as an adult, doesn’t sound like appropriate medical jargon to me, but whatever. Anyway, I’ve been terrified of internal bleeding ever since, (amongst other things.) Just ask my mum. I once bumped my head when I missed the bed during a ‘I have to get back into bed before the toilet stops flushing, otherwise something will get me’ dive. Am I the only one who used to do that? I still do it now occasionally. The sound of a flushing toilet during the dead of night is very unnerving, of course it could wake the monsters up!
Anyway, yes I bumped my head and when my mum came in to check on me the first thing I said was; how hard do you have to hit your head to get internal bleeding mum? She didn’t respond.
Around age twelve I went through a phrase of being terrified of accidental pregnancy. It would’ve made more sense if
A) I was sexually active
B) I had begun to menstruate.
It was the old ‘toilet seat’ rumour that got to me. Fortunately sexual education began at school shortly after that, so everything was cleared up.
What else have I been worried about over the years? Brain tumours – this was a big one. Parkinson’s Disease – I have a slight natural tremor and presumed the worst. Heart attacks – goes without saying. Oh and suffocating during a panic attack (which I now know is impossible.)
Here’s a quick piece of advise, never Google random symptoms unless you want the word Cancer to pop up on your screen. I learned the hard way.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a Hypochondriac, mainly because I hardly ever visit the doctors or have time off work. But I can definitely be a bit dramatic. When I had the Noro bug I was convinced that would vomit up my stomach lining. Needless to say, I didn’t.
Health anxiety is a genuine concern for those who have experienced a serious illness. The fear of said illnesses returning is naturally going to generate an understandable amount of worry. However, I don’t have any experience of this and it would therefore be inappropriate to try and comment.
However, it’s more irrational for those who have generalised anxiety to worry about their health on a regular basis.
Sickness is actually one of my key anxiety triggers along with fatigue and public speaking. If I have a cold or feel unwell, then my internal defences get worn down faster, which makes sense. Managing my emotions can become difficult and I’m susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings, which in turn leads to physical symptoms (e.g. the vicious circle.) Eventually I can’t differentiate between whether I feel genuinely ill, or if my anxiety is mimicking these symptoms due to stress!
This is actually very common amongst people who have a nervous condition. The NHS lists a variety of physical symptoms caused by anxiety, that are often mistaken for illnesses: Stomach pain, sickness, headaches, sweating, fatigue, muscle pain, dry mouth, pins and needles. It’s incredible when you think about it.
To reverse the process of body scanning and furiously googling symptoms, I adopt a technique of acceptance and calm observation. I ask questions such as: What are the external factors? For example, does everyone in the office have a cold? Well then I probably have one too and that’s ok. I just have to make a conscious effort not to push myself too hard at work and get plenty of rest in the evenings. If I catch myself fantasying that I might have Ebola then I use distraction techniques such as; making a cup of tea or starting a conversation with a colleague.
Health anxiety also links back to evolution and the body’s natural defence system. Although invisible, illnesses is an attack on the body and the brain reacts accordingly. But as with all anxiety situations it’s important to accept this reaction and WAIT before responding. It’s ok to be concerned about feeling sick, but is it really worth going to the hospital again for the third time this week? Maybe wait and see whether it eases once you calm down. Distraction is a key technique for this. I took Rigby out to toilet at 4am rather than lying in bed and worrying. It did the trick.
Do I still worry about internal bleeding? Of course I freaking do. But after I discovered how tough the human skull is, I’d say that I’m alright if I bump it on the doorframe now and again.