Why you need to worry about health anxiety
Health anxiety can indirectly lead to injury because it can increase one’s exposure to all of the risks associated with contact with not only healthcare providers but also ‘health diy’ where you try to help yourself, often by using the Internet. These risks include: misdiagnosis leading to inappropriate treatment or further anxiety, correct diagnosis but treatment that is poorly executed, invasive tests that can directly cause injury, side effects of medication or surgery and exposure to hospital induced infections.
“I told you I was sick.” – epitaph on the grave of a hypochondriac
Health anxiety, or what some would call hypochondria, is a complex issue because a certain amount of anxiety about one’s health is clearly a good thing since it can motivate you to avoid undertaking harmful activities or to seek appropriate help. So there is clearly a balance to be struck. It is often exacerbated or even caused by delays or an inability to access appropriate and quality health care and diagnosis due to long waiting lists or cuts to services.
The individual with health anxiety may also find that their complaints are taken less seriously by medics which means that when they have significant issues they are less likely to be referred promptly for tests and investigations.
I don’t think I experience health anxiety in the sense that I don’t worry about all of those frightening illnesses like cancer and heart disease that fortunately (so far) I have not experienced, however when something is wrong then I do worry about it and can’t just dismiss it.
If this counts as health anxiety, then I wonder if I experience it because when I was very young I experienced quite severe physical ill-health. The people that I have met who experience severe health anxiety have been people who have been traumatised when they were young through their experience of conditions such as cancer, traumatic accidents and breathing difficulties.
However, what some health care professionals fail to appreciate is that it is possible to experience health anxiety and also experience real physical conditions and injuries. In fact people with mental health issues including health anxiety are more likely than others to also have physical health problems for a variety of different reasons.
DIY (Dangerous Interventions on Yourself)
It is not just the interventions of medics and physiotherapists that can be harmful but risky diets, aids and appliances and steps that one takes oneself to avoid a perceived risk. Nowadays in addition to the risk of being misdiagnosed by a doctor it is very easy to misdiagnose oneself through surfing the Internet. Doing DIY to renovate your house can be dangerous, but here I am referring to the Do It Yourself approach to health issues. DIY on the body is especially dangerous because the human body, and indeed mind, is incredibly complex and fragile. I attribute some of my injuries to this DIY approach. In my case, I went down the DIY route because of health anxiety and i) easy access to the Internet and enjoying research ii) lack of access to medical expertise iii) neglect as a child.
i) The Internet. Never has so much information been available to so many people with so few checks on its accuracy. The Internet is a double-edged sword because though there is some high-quality information available there is also a great deal of inaccurate information. One can be misdiagnosed very easily because any given symptom can be caused by a range of diagnoses and because the people giving advice on forums are not really equipped to diagnose a specific individual.
Self diagnosing can be particularly problematic. Once you have a clear diagnosis by a qualified professional then using the Internet is a little less dangerous, but it is still wise to be sceptical about what you read and to check any possible treatments or self-help approaches you may be embarking on with a qualified health professional, if that is possible which it may not be due to….
iii) Childhood neglect
I come from a large family where we were left to fend for ourselves a lot and I think that from an early age I developed the habit to take the initiative and do things myself rather than rely on other people. For example, I started working in a hotel when I was about nine, after enquiring about a position. So the positive aspects to this neglect was a level of entrepreneurship but this doesn’t work when applied to health issues due to the complexity of the human body.