As someone who now openly admits to suffering with health anxiety, since the death of my 12-year-old daughter and three pregnancy losses, I tend to avoid any kind of health-related TV programme. In fact, I wrote this blog post about why TV alienates the grieving as it contains so much death, blood, gore and trauma.
Yet there have been a new spate of health-related shows advertised on our screens. One of which is ‘Doctor in the House’.
In this show, a doctors stays with a family for a few days and gives them all a full medical before advising them how they can avoid and improve any ailments they suffer from and, essentially, improve their chances of survival for longer!
Now, to me, this looks interesting as – being health anxious – I would be interested to learn about what we could do to improve our health as a family. But watching the trailers, I know that it’s more likely to spark off further health anxiety in me. I would worry we had the same ailments!
Let me explain, health anxiety, or hypochondria, is where you worry excessively about your health. This also seeps out onto the rest of the family as anxiety over their health comes into the frame, but it’s mostly an anxiety of the self.
This includes a range of symptoms such as obsessive compulsive disorder (excessive handwashing for example), numerous visits to the doctor over health fears (e.g. my chest hurts so I must be having a heart attack) and avoidance of social situations for fear of harm or an anxiety attack.
To others not anxious about these things, health anxiety can seem somewhat ‘silly’, and the term ‘hypochondria’ is often used with a joke or laugh. Why worry about an illness you don’t yet have or are unlikely to ever have? But, to the sufferer, it is a real, physical and emotional strain with no quick-fix solution (such as, pull yourself together!).
Putting hypochondriacs in the spotlight
Last night, I happened to watch House of Hypochondriacs which was screened on Channel 4 (24th November). At first I thought I’d turn it over – as again I felt it would do me more harm than good – but when I saw that the people in the show were similar to me, although more extreme cases, I felt it might actually help if I forced myself to watch it.
The programme claims that £2 million is spent on keeping the ‘worried well’ – that is, seeing and testing people who are otherwise healthy. It’s become a major concern .
In this show, Dr Christian Jessen got together four people suffering with various extreme health anxieties.
- A burly father in his early forties (below right), living in permanent fear, who had cost the NHS thousands in the past year alone by having various ECGs and tests to check for illnesses he didn’t have.
- A young mother of two (below left) who had an uncontrollable fear of getting cancer, and spent hours on the internet every day, obsessively looking up symptoms of cancer and joining health forums. She checked her lymph nodes several times a day.
- A single woman who had a 20-year fear of vomiting that was so severe she wore special gloves, washed her dishes over the bath (for fear of contamination in the kitchen sink) and avoided doctors and hospitals, and people! at all costs.
- The last person was a young woman whose anxiety was so bad she had become a recluse and was able to leave the house, having several anxiety attacks a day.
The first three people shared a house for a week and were tasked with various activities to help them understand what illness is all about and how the NHS works.
First,they watched in on a doctor’s surgery and were able to see how much time doctors spend dealing with very minor ailments that could be treated at home (as a nation, we are becoming more health scared, so it’s not just those of us suffering with full-on hypochondria). The three could appreciate how hard that was for the NHS to manage the volume of these ‘patients’.
Next they worked in a hospital – helping to answer the phones and portering – (at this point the woman with the fear of vomiting left the show as she couldn’t bring herself to do the activities at all). This experience helped the man and woman to see that lots of people use hospitals, and come out alive, and the work that goes in to keeping everything going.
Dr Christian then asked the man to assist on an ambulance, dealing with emergency cases – again as a way to really expose him to what he feared the most. Up to this point, the man had been fairly unconvinced by the process – as he’d suffered with anxiety for 12 years – but working on the ambulance seemed to help him turn a corner and he was able to experience what real emergencies were like. He was also able to openly reflect about why he suffers so badly with anxiety – something many men find hard to do. His father died young, following a heart attack, and a few years later, his own 2-week-old baby son died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – Cot Death). His reactions and anxiety were totally reasonable in light of what he’d experienced and he was able to put his fears into context. The very start of working through the problem.
Dr Christian also arranged for the mother to visit a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy treatment, which was a revelation for her. She felt very guilty for admitting to the patient that she worried about cancer, when the patient was the one suffering, but the patient was very understanding. She had breast cancer and said, while she worried about getting cancer before she got it, having the treatment and the process was nowhere near as bad as what she dreaded. The mother realised that she’d spent the past 7 years with her severe phobia and had not yet got cancer, but in years to come she still might get cancer – she was beginning to realise that worrying about it didn’t make any difference to her chances of getting it, and was in fact wasting the life she did have. It was heartbreaking to hear her say that she didn’t enjoy her children because she didn’t believe she would be around to see them grow up.
With the young woman stuck at home, Dr Christian went to see her. She felt her pulse several times a day and had put on weight because she didn’t like the feeling of her heart rate increasing, then she worried about her weight making her ill. She saw or phoned the doctor daily – daily! Dr Christian managed to convinced her to go for a walk with him, something she’d never do for fear of having an anxiety attack. But having a real doctor with her seemed to give her enough confidence to do it and despite having to stop a couple of times to calm down, she was proud of herself for doing it.
What a stupid illness!
Hypochondria is very stupid, yes, it is. But it’s the illness that’s stupid, not the person suffering from it.
The response on Twitter was interesting, with many fuming at these people for draining the NHS resources for no reason, and many others refusing to believe there was such a thing as hypochondria, it was just people being ‘stupid’. This is very sad because, living it, I know that’s not true. I’m an intelligent, rational woman and know it’s pointless worrying about things out of my control, but anxiety is a powerful enemy of the mind. It’s very hard to understand unless you have experienced it.
I was fascinated by the show and anyone with health anxiety should make an effort to watch it. Firstly, just to know you are not alone in what you fear – you are not crazy! Secondly, to discover ways to work through your anxiety. For me, I noticed some similar traits…
At my worst, I was checking my pulse, feeling for blood clots and looking for lumps. I went for a run and had an anxiety attack during it, my heart pounding feeling sick and dizzy, so I didn’t run again. I went for a walk and the same thing happened. So physical activity became impossible. Now, I could hoover the house and break out in an anxious sweat as my heart begins to palpitate. It is unpredictable. It takes you by surprised.
It also feels utterly ‘crazy’. Only a few years ago, I was enthusiastically running half marathons and 10k races. I ran with a group twice a week and did boot camp and aerobics classes. I was super fit! I never once thought about my heart rate or had anxiety over this. But now, I’m disabled by the physical symptoms that the anxiety causes and it’s depressing!
With the help of my medication and my faith, I’m working through it. Being pregnant again, I don’t want to suffer the anxiety I have been. I need to be strong and well. I want to be fitter and less fearful.
Is it possible to overcome the fear?
Immediately after this show, I flicked the channel over and watched a bit of Imagine… on BBC 1 about Wilko Johnson’s cancer diagnosis.
He was remarkably calm and accepting of his fate. He said as soon as he was told he had cancer, a huge tumour in his stomach he tried to ignore, he left the doctors and went for a walk. As he walked out into the countryside, he felt an overwhelming sense of euphoria. He felt more alive than he ever had in his whole life!
Despite having lived a full life, he realised how much of life he had missed up to that point, like many of us, doing mundane things, not noticing the beauty and richness of what it is to be alive. But he also was thankful for his life, for the chance to live, for the people he had met and loved, for the things he’d been able to do. He wasn’t demanding more time. He wasn’t bitter or angry with this ‘lot’. Cancer was a thing he got. He saw life through a whole new lens.
This had almost as much impact on me as the Hypochondriacs programme (and inspired me to write this post). To go from people like me, trapped in a cycle of fear of the unknown, to Wilko embracing his moments left on earth and feeling liberated by his illness rather than consumed by it! It was quite a remarkable and frank programme that I’d also recommend watching if you can.
Getting to the root of the problem
My anxiety disorder stems directly from the trauma following my daughter’s sudden collapse and death. While at the time I knew something wasn’t ‘right’ with her when she began to feel disoriented and sleepy, enough to phone NHS Direct, this quickly elevated to 999 when she lost consciousness and stopped breathing. All within minuets. Seconds.
My anxiety is triggered by my lack of trust in myself – my instinct to know when something is serious is unbalanced, hence needing to check things several times and calling the doctor.
My anxiety is triggered by my lack of trust in doctors (a common feeling amongst hypochondriacs) – my anxious ‘devil’ whispers in my ear ‘but how can they be sure there’s nothing wrong?!’ – and so the need to revisit time and again.
My anxiety is triggered by the fear of facing trauma again. It’s not about death, for any hypochondriac it’s not really death that’s the fear. The woman trapped in her house was so fed up of her anxiety that she feared she would come to the conclusion that she would actually be better off dead, to put an end to the worry. This is a very real fear. We don’t fear death, we fear the unknown, the trauma, the stress and pain.
Having experienced my child’s death, I found myself knowing other people who have been in the same position. Many I have met online, through this blog, through friends, etc. So now I’m in the grief club and, like it or not, my life has a focus always on death.
I find writing about my feelings and sharing them through this blog very cathartic, it really does help me when I hear from others who are experiencing something similar, to know I’m not alone. It is good to know that my words help others not feel quite so alone in their grief.
Writing help to get the thoughts in my mind down on ‘paper’, it eases the pressure a little. But I’m still surrounded by illness all the time. For example, by following certain social media pages, I’m exposed to stories of sudden death all the time, stories which my anxious brain loves.
I read of a baby who had choked and died. I found myself paranoid about the same happening to anyone of us. I pureed my baby’s food for a long time and watched him eating closely, ready to pounce if he so much as gagged. I wasn’t just alert, I was on high alert. My heart leaping at every sound my baby made.
I read of a mum dying suddenly at 35, younger than me, just dead! I began to obsess about my heart and health – but not in a good way. I found myself comfort eating through the depression, being too scared to raise my pulse, being scared to go out.
By following various pages, I found I was convinced I was going to get the thing they were writing about – diabetes, cancer, meningitis, as well as the more random, rare illnesses we never hear of.
I’ve worked on a lot of this by turning off the pages I liked to follow, and stopping watching the News which seemed to dramatise every public health story. It’s tough, as I don’t like to think I’m not being supportive of others or engaging with what’s going on around me, but for my sanity I had to really remove anything that was likely to cause me to fret.
I’m learning to be slower to worry, to talk myself down, to ignore my anxious voice, to do what I can when I can, to not fight the feeling when it does overwhelm me, to be patient with this.
I was thankful not to be in as bad a state as the people in the show, but I could see how easy it would be to slide the slope into full-blown anxiety. One day you decide to check your pulse, it feels a bit irregular. You stop and try to forget about it but you can’t. The next minute you find yourself checking it again. Then later again. Then you rush down the road and realise your heart is beating really fast. You sweat. Your head feels fuzzy. You worry… the seeds are sowing themselves, subtly but quickly. Without immense mental strength (which let’s face it after a death or trauma is unlikely) you will struggle to overcome the fears, and the growth of the fears, alone.
I am one of these who rarely went to the doctors, now I have this ‘better to be sure’ mindset and while – yes – for peace of mind, it is always a good idea to get a second opinion on health matters – with a hypochondriac this can exacerbate the problem and create further anxiety. It’s a very difficult cycle to get out of. I shared this post last week about how we seem to accumulate pain relieving tablets and vitamins now; the anxious pain turning into real pain.
I take a very small dose of medication just to take the edge off my anxiety while I’m pregnant. I also see a fantastic psychotherapist twice a month to talk through my fears and anxieties. It’s important to keep talking through the worries with someone who understands, isn’t emotionally involved and doesn’t judge. The support of my amazing husband, who despite our rocky road in our 18 years together I grow deeper in love with. He has put his needs aside to enable me to work on getting well rather than add another burden of pressure that I’m failing him as his wife. My developing relationship with God has also helped me immensely and is something I actively work on each day. These things are all essential to supporting my mental health.
At the end of the Hypochondriacs show, Dr Christian summarised that he hoped the people would now be able to live worry-free lives. It was a far too optimistic summary, as the work he’d done – while useful – was just a scratch in the surface of their deep-rooted anxieties. But I would like to think that they all used it as the start of getting professional help to change their thought patterns and behaviours so that the life they lead is one that isn’t dominated by worry.