'I think I may be dying': How to handle hypochondria

Hypochondriac; a person who is abnormally anxious about their health.

Sound familiar? If your default mode is to be a little bit anxious in general, always jumping to the worst case scenario etc., you'll probably be nodding your head as you read this; hypochondria is an added bonus when it comes to the seemingly insurmountable arsenal that anxiety has up its bastard sleeve.

People laugh at you or tell you that you're being ridiculous for assuming that an abdominal cramp is your body's gentle way of telling you that death is imminent. On the outside, you nervously giggle saying 'yeah, you're probably right' while on the inside you're saying 'must google symptoms ASAP because what if this one time you're actually RIGHT?'

Even though the last thing you want in the world is to be sick, it's like you're out to prove some self-fulfilling prophecy. You envision yourself on your death bed saying 'see, I told you so'.

In today's world of social media, hypochondriacs like this here writer have a tough time of it; we're that bit closer to the one in however many thousand stories of ill and unfortunate health - particularly for people who are similar to us - than we would have been before the advent of the internet. And as fellow journalists will know, nothing beats a story about someone who has triumphed in the face of a bad hand of health cards.

Your brain is simply built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. - Psychology Today

But how do we curb it? The first step is to understand our innate negativity bias, which is something that you can work on with some general CBT. If you haven't heard of the term 'negativity bias', you'll certainly be familiar with the behaviour behind it; if you get 100 compliments saying how amazing you are and one insult saying something nasty, it's that one comment on which you will put all weight and focus. If you do a good job most of the time and make one mistake once in a blue moon, it's that error that you'll hone right in on. Similarly for our health, or what we hear about other people's health, if we hear that a small handful of people have been diagnosed with some rare disease and then we compare ourselves to those people and - dammit - we fit the bill, we're looking completely passed the hundreds of thousands of people who don't have this flesh-eating parasitic affliction (yes, we always fear things crawling inside us and harvesting a family of mutants, even if it sounds stupid).


Understand that it's in our nature to default towards the negative and consciously tell yourself that that's what's happening, before redirecting your thinking back to the positive. And for what it's worth, it's not your fault, it's all part of your brain chemistry.

"Take, for example, the studies done by John Cacioppo, Ph.D., then at Ohio State University, now at the University of Chicago. He showed people pictures known to arouse positive feelings (say, a Ferrari, or a pizza), those certain to stir up negative feelings (a mutilated face or dead cat) and those known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). Meanwhile, he recorded electrical activity in the brain's cerebral cortex that reflects the magnitude of information processing taking place." - Psychology Today

The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news. - Psychology Today

In reality, and statistically, the likelihood of something being very wrong is often low, but it's just what we hear about those who do get unlucky, that makes us think 'we're next'.

Secondly, beware the art of self-diagnosis. Unless you're a doctor, chances are you're wrong.

The next thing to do is to stay on top of your health in a way that isn't feeding your hypochondria. Agree to have your bloods done maybe once a year and stay on top of the health checks provided by the government. All this talk of smear tests is perhaps making those of us who are a bit more fearful fear it even more, but they're there to catch these things before they turn into anything sinister. Keep an eye on your boobs and, generally, learn to listen to and trust your body.


In lots of instances, your body will tell you when something is up, but for the illnesses that come with no warning? Well, if we spend all of our energy on what might be wrong with us now, tomorrow or one day, we'll probably get sick on account of all that stress. And talk to any doctor about your hypochondria and be sure they'll tell you about someone they knew who spent their whole lives worrying about getting sick only to leave their house one day and get hit by a car. Yes, that's far from reassuring - now we fear the roads too, thanks - but it's worth considering that a) we only have one life and b) we'll be a lot healthier if we can learn to enjoy the here and now.

Lastly? MINDFULNESS. Telling yourself not to think about it when you've just read about someone's cancer diagnosis when they were super fit and healthy won't work. Not when you're in that moment. Instead, promise yourself to practice mindfulness, which we've written about extensively and is all about relaxation and calming everything down, twice a day, morning and night. It's a skill that must be practiced and learned, so that eventually when your mind does wander towards the hyper anxious 'I'm going to die, aren't I' mode, you'll be better equipped with the skills to say 'shhh, brain' and continue on living your life.

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