Jon Fortenbury

NeuroProgress

Anxiety

How I Overcame Severe Hypochondria

Tips on dealing with health anxiety from someone who's been there.

Posted May 15, 2020

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve witnessed a lot of my friends experiencing health anxiety for the first time. I understand what they’re going through, since I went through that same level of panic over a decade ago when my hypochondria began. But through years of therapy and changing my habits, I’ve overcome it, or at least greatly diminished its frequency and level of debilitation.

Here’s how I did it, and hopefully this can help anyone new to this kind of anxiety.

Admit the problem

I didn’t experience hypochondria until I was 22. Before this point, I was a catastrophic thinker, picturing myself dying any time I was on a roller coaster or airplane, but I didn’t think a young person could die of a disease. So, I would’ve been a hypochondriac if I wasn’t so naïve.

Then at 22, I got a canker sore on my tongue. I didn’t know it was a canker sore. I Googled it and realized it could be all sorts of things, including tongue cancer. This shattered my invincibility complex, and I would Google every symptom or bump moving forward.

One friend back then, who I’d asked to pray for me because I thought I had liver cancer, accused me of being a hypochondriac. I denied it. “Take this seriously, man,” I replied. “I might be dying!”

It took a long time for me to even admit I had a problem. The first couple of years, I just thought I kept getting lucky. I’d have a concern, get it looked at or tested, and would luckily not have the disease I was worried about.

Only after entering therapy in my mid-20s did I realize it was hypochondria. I didn’t go to the therapist for this reason. But very early on, my therapist only ever wanted to talk about my health anxiety. I tried to get her back on track, insisting I didn’t even have hypochondria—just occasional, totally legitimate concerns about my health. But to prove me wrong, she gave me a test for illness anxiety disorder and officially diagnosed me (my first diagnosis yet).

Even if you don’t have an official diagnosis like me, you can still realize you have a problem. If you’re regularly checking yourself for signs of illness, fearing bodily sensations or minor symptoms are caused by a major disease, or struggle to get reassurance even after seeing a doctor, you may have illness anxiety disorder, according to Harvard Medical School.

You might not even be a full-fledged hypochondriac and are just experiencing health anxiety right now. But if your anxiety is currently debilitating and you haven’t been diagnosed with anything, read on because what follows is what helped me.       

Imagine talking to a friend

After admitting I had a problem (I couldn’t deny it at that point), my therapist taught me a useful trick to help with the anxiety. She told me any time that I’m worried I have a disease, imagine what I’d tell a friend who came to me with that same concern.

This is a really useful tactic because we tend to be more rational about other people’s worries than our own. By getting out of your own head and focusing on someone else (in this case, a hypothetical friend), you’re able to think more clearly. More times than not, you wouldn’t tell a friend who has a sore throat that they have throat cancer. You’d probably tell them it’ll go away and they’ll be fine.

This helped silence my anxiety on a number of occasions but not always. Sometimes it didn’t work. That’s when I knew I needed to bring in backup.

Get an accountability partner

Since my therapist wasn’t always available for me, she suggested I find a friend I can talk to when I get anxious. A lot of my friends clearly didn’t want the position, which I don’t blame them. But one friend in particular jumped on the opportunity.

Getting an accountability partner has helped me for two reasons. The first is that they can help talk me down from anxiety better than I can myself. The second is because, after a while of seeing their calm responses, I started having them on my own. Months into having an accountability partner, I found myself at times thinking “It’s probably nothing” instead of “It’s probably cancer” because that’s how my accountability partner would respond.

I actually have two accountability partners now. One time one of them wasn’t available and I reached out to someone else who helped. The more support, the better.

Stop Googling

Even with a therapist, an accountability partner, and some useful tactics to deal with anxiety, I still found myself struggling. And that’s because I was still Googling symptoms.

I didn’t even see the problem: the more knowledge, the better, right? Maybe for someone who doesn’t struggle with health anxiety, but not for someone who does. You don’t need to know your headache could be a brain tumor because it 99 percent likely isn’t and you’re probably not strong enough to be OK with that one percent. 

Of course, in the case of the coronavirus, know what the symptoms are and how to prevent contracting it, but then don’t Google or read about the virus after that because it will only cause you unnecessary anxiety. If your accountability partner thinks something needs to be Googled, they’ll Google it for you.

I’m not saying I’m “cured” of illness anxiety disorder. I still slip up sometimes. But it’s less often and less severe. I don’t spend months worrying alone in my room, missing out on life like before. I’m in and out with my anxiety. And that’s good enough for me.