health

Health anxiety is real. And is ruining these women's lives.

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.

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Mel James wants to raise awareness and understanding of her condition. (Image: Youtube).

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.)

Video via Mel James
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At one stage, Mel avoided going to the doctor out of fear that her health worries would be confirmed. Now she’s found a “very good” GP, but not the reassurance she seeks — although she might believe her doctor’s verdict for a few minutes, Mel resumes checking her symptoms as soon as she gets home.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, hypochondria has a considerable stigma attached to it, and it’s not uncommon for sufferers to be ridiculous or accused of attention seeking.

“I think a lot of people either don’t understand it or find it quite amusing or think we are time wasters … I don’t think people understand how much sufferers can struggle with it and how debilitating it really can be to live with,” Mel says.

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Health anxiety sufferers are sometimes accused of attention seeking. Image via iStock.

“I’m quite ashamed of it and I even feel guilty about people that truly do have these illnesses that I worry about, so I just kept it to myself.”

Even health professionals aren’t always understanding of the condition; Mel’s been chastised for wasting doctors’ time and making too many appointments. “Just recently I had a consultant actually ask me to leave the room because he didn’t want to reassure me anymore,” she says.

“I know it must be really frustrating to have a patient constantly turning up thinking they’ve got something wrong with them when they probably don’t, but one of the things we need the most is just patience and understanding.”

Hypnotherapy and medications are some of the treatment options available for health anxiety, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. For Mel, a trusting relationship with her GP and counsellor has been key, and she’s currently trying out a new medication.

Mel’s also working to increase awareness, understanding and media coverage of health anxiety. Earlier this year she produced a video which features sufferers describing their day-to-day experience of the condition in writing.

Not a day goes by where I don’t worry about dying from a disease. I live in fear, one woman writes.

I can’t go on holiday for more than a week in case I need to see my GP. I’ve missed so much, writes another.

“Health anxiety is an illness in itself, it’s no different really from all the things we fear, it’s just less understood and it just needs I suppose a bit more compassion,” Mel tells Radio National.

“Ultimately I just want to live like a normal life without it being dictated by all this obsessing and checking and fear and everything else goes with it.”

This article originally appeared on The Glow.

Do you, or does anyone you know, live with health anxiety? What do you wish people knew about it?

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