Oh no – I think I’m a hypochondriac!
Mary Jo Dowsett
Images by Sophia-Rose Abraham
Hi, my name is Mary Jo and I am a self-diagnosed hypochondriac. Despite never actually being diagnosed with hypochondria, I’m pretty sure I have almost every symptom (well, according to Google).
Self-diagnosing is my speciality and although I am well-aware of the dangers this can bring – I cannot help but rely on Google to solve my never-ending list of concerns. Google has
become my security blanket, a temporary anxiety reliever and quite frankly, my homedoctor.
For those who may be unaware, hypochondria is a form of health anxiety that leads you to believe you have, or will eventually develop, a serious illness. Despite the word being thrown around quite a lot in recent years, the condition is only thought to affect between two to five percent of the population.
Having said this, almost everyone has found themselves Googling symptoms at some point in their lives, with MedicalDirector revealing that 72 percent of Australians have turned to
Dr Google at least once. However, for those suffering from health anxiety this is often a daily ritual that can become all too consuming and even obsessive. Hypochondriacs can
spend every waking hour on Google searching tirelessly for some form of reassurance and instead leave with a browser history full of WebMD articles and crippling anxiety (because apparently every symptom is a sign you have two weeks left).
This type of internet-based hypochondria is also known as ‘cyberchondria’ and has taken health anxiety to a whole new level. Before access to the internet, health worries or concerns would typically be voiced among family and friends – many of whom would talk some sense into you before you completely spiralled (there is only so much pestering they can take). However, now whenever others dismiss your fears as irrational, you can turn to Google which somehow convinces you that your fears are in fact rational. This is especially common among the younger generations, with MedicalDirector revealing that 87 percent of 18-24-year-olds often use Google to diagnose their symptoms. For someone suffering with hypochondria, this convenience of Google can ultimately create an obsessive and unhealthy reliance.
The preoccupation with constantly fearing there is something terribly wrong with you is extremely draining, both physically and emotionally. What would typically be ignored or
shrugged off by the average person can be significantly magnified by a hypochondriac. Headaches, muscle aches or even a twitching finger can spiral into serious health worries. The brain is continuously on fight or flight mode, an exhausting and consuming cycle of fear and dread.
There are some hypochondriacs who actively avoid the doctors due to a fear of being told something terrible, yet there are also some who make a regular habit of booking appointments in a desperate need for reassurance. However, for many hypochondriacs, fear and anxiety can run so deep that even reassurance from a medical professional cannot alleviate any stress, convinced the doctor has overlooked something serious.
For a sufferer, it’s easy to be selective of the information you hear and read. Anytime the illness you are fearing is shown or mentioned, you convince yourself that it must be a sign from the universe that you definitely have it, right? And whenever there are reliable facts showing you that you’re being irrational, you don’t take notice. It’s as if our minds are programmed to only pick up certain frequencies, or in this case, illnesses.
According to Behaviour Research and Therapy, fearing for our health can increase after noticing ‘unfamiliar bodily sensations, hearing details of illness in a friend of a similar age, or new information about illness’. Additionally, the intense stress and anxiety caused from regularly fearing an illness can actually create or worsen symptoms such as headaches and stomach discomfort, further fuelling a sufferer’s anxiety.
Current health crisis aside, it’s clear that we live in an extremely health-conscious society, constantly bombarded with health-related news. This news typically focuses on what the latest danger to our health is (I swear there’s a new 10 every day), subsequently instilling fear into our minds whether we realise it or not. Therefore, this continued exposure to anxiety-filled news has (not surprisingly) created an anxiety-filled society. As mentioned in Hypochondriasis and Health Anxiety: A Guide for Clinicians, this unremitting exposure produces ‘favourable conditions for an epidemic of health anxiety’.
For anyone who has Googled symptoms before, you’ll know that it is an easy trap to fall into and can be extremely challenging to break free from. It is a convenient and sometimes helpful tool but can also be a one-way ticket to crippling anxiety. Personally, I’ve probably diagnosed myself with around 50 illnesses thanks to Dr Google over the years. However, I have recently been able to train myself to no longer instinctively reach for my phone whenever a symptom presents itself and instead find something that quickly distracts me, whether that be talking to a friend, reading a book or binge-watching a light-hearted show.
Of course it’s important to be aware of your health and any changes happening in your body – but instead of turning to Google to ease your anxious mind (which it definitely won’t – trust me), book in to see your doctor to ensure you have the right diagnosis and reassurance you deserve. It’s time to prioritise your mental health as much as your physical.