We’ve all joked there’s a “hypochondriac” in our lives — you know, that friend who checks in with Dr Google at even the slightest hint of an ailment, or who’s always convinced their common cold is something more sinister.
However, health anxiety is actually a serious and widely misunderstood disorder. For sufferers, the fear there’s something wrong with them is so tormenting it can impair their ability to function.
In a recent episode of ABC Radio National‘s All in the Mind program, exploring imaginary illness, hypochondria sufferer Melanie James describes her constant fear about her health.
“I’ve probably thought I had cancer of nearly every part of my body, from skin cancer, breast cancer, bone cancer, lymphoma, leukaemia. I also sometimes worry about other conditions like MS or motor neurone disease, meningitis, septicaemia,” she tells reporter Lynne Malcolm.
The 32-year-old believes her recently diagnosed hypochondria began with an incident during craft lessons at age five.
“One of my friends said to me, ‘Oh, do you want to try sniffing the glue to see what it smells like?’ And without thinking about it I picked it up and smelled the glue and then he was, like, ‘You’ve glue-sniffed now, that’s it, you’re going to die’,” she recalls.
“I was too scared to tell anyone what I’d done, so I just went home and spent the whole weekend convinced I was going to die and I just waited about.”
At the same time Mel’s mother was in hospital with septicemia, which also potentially contributed to her health anxiety. Her concerns worsened with age, and took on an obsessive nature during her teens.
“I would literally check symptoms for hours and hours, just poking and prodding at the same part of my body to see whether it had changed or it felt any different or it looked any different,” Mel says. (Post continues after video.)