The reality of health anxiety: no joke


Fran is my really good friend. She is sometimes my doctor and often my therapist. We  speak on the phone most days but unlike my other friends Fran is the one who will always ask me how I am with a little more meaning.  She is the one who will understand when I say genuinely and without humour “I’m okay but I’m really worried that the pain in my stomach is something sinister, what if I really have bowel cancer this time?”  I add “this time” because Fran is used to me having bowel cancer, or brain tumours, even breast cancer, measles and through one really dark time she nursed me through the times I was convinced I had Aids.

It turns out that, touch wood, spit three times or whatever you need to protect my health, I don’t have any form of cancer, I don’t have measles or Aids or chicken pox or dysentery or MS or Motor Neuron disease but I do have health anxiety, also known as hypochondria.


The Greek word “hypochondria”  translates as “below the ribcage”. It was first used to explain indigestion, then melancholia, then neurosis and finally, “a misplaced fear of illness based on misinterpretation of bodily symptoms” and while almost no one will own up to it publicly up to one in 10  people suffer from anxiety problems and doctors are seeing more cases in which this shows up as health anxiety or hypochondria.

I spend a lot of time  online “researching” my various ailments and I am the first to admit the danger inherent in those searches .  But I’m not alone,   “health” is the second-most popular internet search topic after pornography.  And sometimes the time spent on the internet is worth its weight in the relief you find when you find yourself  mirrored in someone else’s writing

Louise Carpenter recently wrote about her health anxiety in The Observer

Over the past five years, since the birth of my three children, I estimate that I have been to the doctor’s more times than in the preceding two decades. Unlike some hypochondriacs, there is some part of me that recognises the neurosis, but I find myself in a loop; that talking myself out of a surgery visit might be seen as an act of hubris for which I’ll be punished. It’s a lose-lose situation. There is no logic here.

Okay so I could have written every word. Especially about the logic.  I know there is no logic.  I know that I have hypochondria not some other disease.  But I still worry.  And I worry more so now that I have a child.

According to Louise’s article and specifically a book called Anxiety – A Self-Help Guide,

“There are many reasons why someone worries too much about their health,” says Lorna Cameron, one of its authors. “You may be going through a particularly stressful period of your life. There may have been illness or death in your family, or a family member may have worried a lot about your health when you were young.

I understand my worries about responsibility,  I understand my fear is irrational and I am probably trying to mask a thousand different things but I think I need a lot more therapy before I can let Dr Google (or Fran) go.  But at least I know I am in good company.

Do you use Google as a symptom checker? Do you suffer from hypochondria? Is there anything that makes your “symptoms” feel better or worse?


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