When Worrying About Your Health Turns Into Something More: Illness Anxiety Disorder
Written By Uyen Nguyem
Anxiety is something that we all deal with at some point in our lives, whether it’s before a basketball game, confessing to your crush, or before taking a big test. Anxiety can show as psychological symptoms such as freezing up and not being able to focus on what you want to. But, anxiety can also cause physical symptoms such as sweaty hands, nausea, having trouble breathing, and even heart palpitations. But when your anxiety gets to the point where they’re taking over your life and you’re having trouble doing daily activities without freaking out, then you could be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (Premier Health). Although there are many different types of anxiety disorders such as PTSD, panic disorder, and OCD, one in particular that affects many people that isn’t very well known is called illness anxiety disorder (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services).
This specific type of anxiety is categorized by someone taking common symptoms and thinking it’s a symptom of a serious disease, without anything making you think that way. For example, if I had a history of strokes, then me going to the ER because my arm got numb all of a sudden would for the most part make sense. But if I’ve never had a stroke and did the same thing, then it is a different story. This is where the distinction between genuine worry and having this anxiety disorder lies.
It can start off with you staying up worrying, scared that your stomach ache that day could indicate that you have internal bleeding. The next day, you end up going to the doctor, getting tested and finding out that nothing is wrong, and you just ate too much. More symptoms next week, and the one after that, and trips to the doctor start stacking up. You could start doubting your doctors. “But they haven’t done this test. What if I have a heart condition that hasn’t been diagnosed because they didn’t do it?” The results of the tests they run start to not calm you down anymore and you start wishing they would just give you every test in the book and figure out what is wrong with you. After a while, you start doubting yourself, “Am I imagining my symptoms? Are they just my anxiety and hyper fixation causing me to imagine these illnesses?” For months, this was my reality, and I honestly thought it would either never end or I would be diagnosed with cancer.
One of the hardest parts of having this illness is that it uses rational and irrational thinking at the same time. When you experience these symptoms, you’re not imagining it and there is always a chance that it truly is something more serious. Sometimes even people who don’t have this condition can panic that their symptoms are something more serious. Because there is always that tiny chance that it can be something cancerous or potentially fatal, it’s extremely hard to get grounded again when you’re in those thoughts. This makes the condition hard to get through on your own and having someone else there guiding you through it will make the process into recovery much easier.
Because of this, if you believe that you have this condition, the first thing you should do is to talk to either your primary care doctor or your therapist (if you are currently going to therapy). Only 37% of people who have this condition seek help for it, and these medical experts can help diagnose you and come up with a treatment plan in order for you to recover (Harvard). Please don’t be afraid to get help for this condition, as it can make you feel crazy and take away from many experiences in your life as you are put through anxiety attack after anxiety attack.
Because this illness can be caused/get worse when someone is going through an extremely stressful/emotional part of their life, getting help and solving those issues should also help the anxiety get better (Harvard). The treatment for this condition usually entails psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy) and can help you manage your worries without the use of excessive medical testing or frequent doctor visits (Mayo Clinic). Additional things that can help the recovery process is medication and managing your stress levels.
Many people don’t realize that there is a name to the experiences and feelings that they’ve been going through. They don’t realize that it’s not just them, and that other people are going through the exact same thing. Therefore, if you believe you have this, please talk to a medical professional and remember that you are not alone and can get through this.