I recently read on social media somewhere that self-diagnosed hypochondriacs are the epitome of irony.
When it comes to talking about hypochondriasis, I find that the general sentiment surrounding the topic is one of jest or mocking; and that people regard the disorder as something of amusement, or not even real at all.
Luckily, as somebody who has had to deal with health anxiety and its very real physical effects, I have learned to effectively handle these generalised assumptions through discovering more about my affliction.
"I was completely positive, for about two years, that I had bowel cancer." Image source: supplied.
I have come to recognise the physical manifestation of my obsessive worrying in the form of elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, trembling, and sweaty palms. As an adult, I have identified this in myself as a child, which led to the possibility that these anxieties developed in me when I was younger.
I remember being exposed to certain things that caused this same reaction; in particular tragic stories related to death on the news watched at eight years of age, or ideas of impending doom set about following the Sri Lankan tsunami in 2004 at nine years of age.
From this the assumption might be that I fear death – to be honest, this is not the case. The fear is not of death itself, but more the fear of a significantly reduced lifespan and/or diminished quality of life from a debilitating illness. The anxiety of knowing that you are dying due to a chronic disease, like cancer, is particularly incapacitating.
"The main way in which I have learned to cope is through understanding that truly, you cannot control everything that happens in life." Image source: supplied.
Fleetingly anxious thoughts often arise regularly for me. For example a mild headache would be perceived as a potential onset of an aneurysm, or the susceptibility to burn one’s tongue on hot foods results in becoming engrossed by thoughts of probable onsets of oral cancer, or even a rather indulgent day consuming greasy fish and chips could lead to the obsession of developing pancreatic cancer.
Other times, it’s not as simple. Two benign fatty lumps (lipomas) in my lower back consumed a large amount of my life. For more than two years, I was convinced that they were cancerous tumours. I even had a friend currently studying physiotherapy palpate them, and when her response was one of concern, that rendered me completely inconsolable and unable to complete a shift at work.
Another incident was when I was completely convinced, for about two years, that I had bowel cancer. Each and every Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) symptom I had was noted, and each and every one caused such anguish that the downward spiral I fell into somehow led me into an after-hours doctor’s office.
Shaking, breathing heavily, with tears in my eyes from the panic, the GP sat and waited, silently, for me to overcome my internal battle; before only managing to address my physical complaints and dismiss my mental state altogether. I was ‘young and healthy,’ he said, and that I’ve got ‘nothing wrong’.
My associations with GPs have been mostly negative. The first doctor, without actually having listened to me, put it down to stress; the next basically laughed off my concerns, and the rest waved me away and treated me by telling me to ‘not to worry’. No one could or would try and medically diagnose me with something that was very real and clearly having an impact on my life. This perhaps could be the reason why I consider myself self-diagnosed - due to the failure of said health professionals.
Only one doctor suggested I perhaps see a psychologist, however I dismissed it due to the developed negative feelings towards health professionals and how they dealt with mental health. Talking about my mental health with family and friends proved difficult; mostly due to my own poor understanding of what I was dealing with at the time, and the rest due to the stigma associated with mental health in my culture.
Being Vietnamese, and I assume the same or similar for many other ethnic cultures, mental health issues are grouped into one diagnosis. It is simply black or white; you are either crazy or not crazy. So I essentially had to deal with it all on my own.
Thus began the journey to discover more about what was affecting me on such a scale that I would often end up a physical and emotional wreck. I Googled my symptoms, questioned almost everybody who happened to be in health or studying health, and listened intently to customers at my workplace (a pharmacy) as they described their symptoms.
Mia Freedman on how she deals with anxiety. Post continues below...
Initially, these habits exacerbated the anxiety and were the main triggers for the constant and repetitive ‘you’re dying you’re dying you’re dying’ audio playing in the back of my mind every two or three minutes. In the long term, my relentless gathering of health-related information slowly helped me rule out potential illnesses via a process of elimination and consideration of its prevalence in my own demographic. For a long time I thought I was the only one who felt this way, but from my own research I learned to put everything into a healthy perspective.
Dealing with illness anxiety disorder is like the weather: some days are sunny, others rainy and occasionally you have your thunderstorms. But lately, most days are sunny as I’ve learned how to manage it. Having people in your life who are able to be reassuring while you are being inexplicably irrational is a definite contributing factor to effective management. But the main way in which I have learned to cope is through understanding that truly, you cannot control everything that happens in life.
Stephanie Huynh, 21 is from Western Australia and is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which asks: how much power do our brains have over our bodies?