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What it's like to develop health anxiety

Hattie, 22, shares her experience of developing health anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s so strange to feel lost and alone in a world that is full of people in the same situation. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, many people have been experiencing anxiety around health and getting sick. But even though I know I’m one of many, my anxiety tells me that I’m both totally alone and very weird - it has a way of doing that.

The reappearance of anxiety in lockdown

The past weeks have been a struggle. At the start of the pandemic, the pause in life almost felt like a relief, because I didn’t have to fulfill my huge list of expectations. My final term of university was going to be intense and I think I was dreading it quite a lot, so it felt good to have a break.

However, without the familiar distractions, my anxiety began to rear its head again.

Even though I know I’m one of many, my anxiety tells me that I’m both totally alone and very weird.

The appearance of health anxiety

I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time, but health anxiety hasn’t affected me like this before. Now I often find myself hyperventilating, focused on every tiny sensation in my body, and it’s exhausting. Frequently, my brain takes me to the space many people with panic attacks will understand as the ‘I know this is probably a panic attack, but it feels more likely that it’s a heart attack and I’m going to die’ feeling.

Now I often find myself hyperventilating, focused on every tiny sensation in my body, and it’s exhausting.

People often treat health anxiety as a big joke, which makes it hard to talk about. My fear has been that, because many people are experiencing an increase in anxiety about their health or the health of their loved ones, I won’t be taken seriously.

“Well, of course you’re anxious; it’s normal to feel like that right now.”

The thing is, it feels very ‘not normal’.

I’m freaking out that my flea bites mark the beginning of a deadly rash; that I am overheating and getting heatstroke when exercising; that twinges of pain in my chest are signs of something serious. I’m worrying about my breathing, and even about the asbestos roof on my parents’ garage.

People often treat health anxiety as a big joke, which makes it hard to talk about.

I find myself wishing to live with a doctor for constant reassurance, or in case anything bad happens to me. I’m also terrified about what isolation on this scale will do to my mental health. This is the paradoxical ‘worrying about worrying’. What if I worry so much that I lose my mind? The stress makes it feel like that’s possible quite frequently.

Addressing the anxiety

In the past, I managed my anxiety with wonderful therapy, exercise and acceptance - but also through numbing. I’ve used work and noise to suppress the anxious dialogue in my head. I’ve seen emotions as a nuisance, often getting in the way of me achieving things day to day. Better to run headlong into work, travel and compulsive cooking than sit and feel difficult emotions – that’s what I told myself.

But that doesn’t work. I need to find a way to accept the whole of me - not just the hard-working, competitive and ‘achieving’ side, but also the messy brain that worries about getting tetanus from stepping on a drawing pin!

Let these bad times be a whole lot of bad, because they will pass and you have the strength to see them through.

There isn’t a trendy or “acceptable” strand of anxiety. For me, anxiety is intrusive and debilitating, and feels entirely uncontrollable sometimes; it’s never going to look pretty. But these are difficult times, and feeling spaced out, confused and terrified is ok right now. Let these bad times be a whole lot of bad, because they will pass and you have the strength to see them through.

 

Author: Hattie, 22

Where to get support

It's really common to experience anxiety at some point. Find out what causes it, what you can do to help and where you can get support on our anxiety page.

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