Hypochondria has become synonymous with drama queens, avid WebMD users and chronic worriers, whose anxiety of a small cough or out-of-season cold is the butt of many jokes in numerous television sitcoms.
From Scrubs regular Harvey Corman’s urge to get tested for every disease, to Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and his irrational fear of germs, hypochondriacs have become staple characters in the fictional world of TV comedy.
However, in reality, sufferers of health anxiety can experience debilitating and life-changing effects such as lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome and eczema, triggered or exacerbated by psychological problems.
Hypochondria is defined as the irrational fear of being ill, or the fear that it is likely that one will get an illness – with many sufferers caught in a seemingly hopeless loop of anxiety.
When physical symptoms are triggered or exacerbated by worrying, it causes even more anxiety, which aggravates the symptoms and can lead to panic attacks or even depression.
Married father Ben, 35, from Manchester, endured five months of health anxiety and knows first-hand how hypochondria can have a devastating effect on a person’s state of mind.
“It really wound me up, and I had been going to the GP to find out what was wrong with me, convinced it must be something awful like MS or motor neurone disease,” he said.
Paul had been experiencing physical symptoms, such as stiffness in his neck, heaviness in his arms and muscle twitching.
After months of suffering, he finally found Cognitive Behavioural Therapy service (CBT) through his GP, a computerised online therapy treatment providing online psychiatric and self-help treatments.
He then self-referred to Self Help Services, a user-led mental health charity, and after his initial assessment with the CBT co-ordinator Paul felt immediately better, that there was a ‘name’ to his experience and he wasn’t the only one.
He started the course within a week, and now says it has changed his life long term.
“It enables me to be on guard,” he said. “I am aware my symptoms might return but now I have the tools to jump on any negative thoughts when they start and understand what it happening.”
He has already recommended the service to a friend and would say it is very useful for people with depression, but not those at the end of their tether who need someone to talk to one to one.
Self Help Services provides help across the North West for all types of conditions with more than 10,000 people using the service last year.
They have a range of self-help anxiety community groups in Chorlton and Hulme where people can attend on a drop in basis.
Recently their many years of hard work have earned the charity a Community Impact Award and the Winner of Winners award at the Technology4Good Awards in London.
Chief Executive Nicky Lidbetter, who has an extensive mental health career in Manchester, said: “Health anxiety is a very real and at times debilitating disorder for the affected person.
“Self Help Services works with people suffering health anxiety in a number of ways. The groups are facilitated and people are invited to join group discussions to talk about their difficulties in a safe, supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere.
“Health anxiety often goes hand in hand with traits of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, where the sufferer can repeatedly check their symptoms and repeat behaviours to try and make them feel better.
“The important thing when working with someone with health anxiety is to underline that they are not alone in feeling this way and that other people have had experience of this and to normalise their situation.”
For more information on treatment for hypochondria, visit Self Help Services here.
Image courtesy of Bristol06000, with thanks.