When The World Health Organization declared a global pandemic back in March and put us all into lockdown, we were forced to reduce our usually very social and eventful lives to minimum human contact and stuff every aspect of our lives into our four walls.
Not being able to live normally anymore and having to work from home has certainly taken a toll on people’s mental health.
In mid-March 2020, the British Mental Health Foundation found that 62% of adults in the UK have felt anxious and worried, with the fears of “becoming ill” (58%), “being separated from friends and family” (54%), and “coping with the uncertainty “(53%) being some key reasons for such stress.
While figures seemed to go down over the summer and people regained some of their freedoms, the British Mental Health Foundation stated in mid-June that “this overall picture conceals the fact that many people are having a far more difficult time than is shown when looking at the UK adult population. Our findings suggest that across the country, the pandemic has left some struggling emotionally”.
Those are just the figures from the UK, where restrictions have been somewhat irregular and loose. So does the concern that over the winter, the number of cases would rise again, and so would the anxiety that comes with it. A very specific form of anxiety is especially fuelled by lockdown stress and health-related uncertainties: health anxiety.
Health anxiety, also known as Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD) but commonly referred to as hypochondria, is the misinterpretation of normal bodily sensations as dangerous, and sometimes patients focus so much on bodily sensations that they experience somatic symptoms, which lead them, again, to believe that they might be terminally ill.
A seemingly endless cycle which leaves many patients confused whether their symptoms are real or not. While it is a form of anxiety, it is often housed within the OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) spectrum.
Health anxiety is not a rare mental condition. It occurs in four to six per cent of the general population. While professional tools like therapy, psychotherapy or medication are recommended in order to treat anxiety disorders, during the pandemic, with limited mental health services and long waiting lists, some health anxiety patients have to help themselves.Beat Health Anxiety is a group on the social media platform Discord, founded in June 2020 by user and admin ‘AnxiousButSmiling’ as a solution for health anxiety patients to feel less alone and provide support for each other during the lockdown. This group is for those who are unable to get professional help and those who are looking for people whose biggest concern is also their health. The group, known on Discord as a ‘server’, started off with 20 members, which has now increased to 315 active members.
Rose* is a 21 year-old girl from Germany. She is a part of the Discord group and has been living with health anxiety on and off for two years now. Triggered by her grandpa’s death, who had suffered a stroke five years prior his passing, she started googling her symptoms as she felt there was something wrong with her.
“I would say that I research (my symptoms) three to five times a week. It definitely increased during the pandemic and winter is here, so you get a lot of cold-like symptoms which freak me out a bit more than they used to,” Rose explains.
Researching symptoms is one of the main behavioural characteristics of health anxiety, and it is considered an anxiety-pusher. Being at home is increasing the spare time health anxiety patients spend on researching their symptoms, leaving them stressed and exhausted looking for things to keep the mind busy.
While Rose has been dealing with health anxiety for longer than the pandemic lasts, the virus has definitely been added to her list of health-related concerns: “I go out on walks with my best friend, we try not to meet other people so that it’s safe for us to still meet up without having to worry about getting covid from other people.”
Pierre-Alexandre, 23, from Lyon, France, is also a member of the Discord group. His health anxiety was first triggered at the age of 11, when he found out about appendicitis, an inflammation of the appendix. His experience with the syndrome at such a young age almost led him to being home-schooled when his fear of appendicitis became too strong.
The virus did not really contribute to his anxiety, but the lockdown certainly did. “I’m not really scared of Covid, although I’m scared for my parents and family. Back in March, I was actually working on my Masters Degree in Cancer Biology and Research. I had a six months-long internship that should’ve ended in June 2020, but because of the pandemic and lockdown, we had to work from home,” Pierre-Alexandre explains angrily.
As the lockdown kicked in, his routine got so disrupted that his health anxiety reached an all-time high in June. “I got muscle spasms, and as usual I went online. I kind of immediately understood my mistake when the first thing that showed up was Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which is known as Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in the UK), which triggered an anxiety attack and really got me scared of neurological diseases,” he said.
Besides his older siblings, boyfriend, friends and the Discord group, Pierre-Alexandre found support from his doctor, who encouraged him to get Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and since he began getting therapy, he is now trying to encourage others who suffer from health anxiety to try the therapy as a form of treatment.
“Try to find a therapist that suits your needs. Look for therapy until you find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable to talk to and open up to,” he said. Visiting a doctor repeatedly is also a symptom of health anxiety, as well as lack of trust in medical test results, which urges the anxiety patient to return to the doctor for a “double-check”.While people like Rose and Pierre-Alexandre have been struggling with health anxiety for a while now, some people have only developed this kind of anxiety when the pandemic began, like Amya, a 14-year-old girl from the US. Being part of the Discord group, she is the one of two members who have been infected with Covid-19. She has been having intrusive, health-related thoughts since December 2019, when she had a potential anaphylactic reaction which made her aunt call the emergency services.
As a post-Covid patient in America struggling with health anxiety, Amya has a hard time dealing with the health system in her state. “The pandemic has worsened my health anxiety a lot. In my state, hospitals and doctors are totally overwhelmed with patients,” she said.
“They’re even using amber alert to warn us to be careful. My mom has become hesitant going to the doctors because she doesn’t want to sicken my baby brother with covid. Especially after I’ve caught it myself, doctors are also becoming hesitant with treating past covid patients.”Due to the fact that Covid-19 is a new and unfamiliar virus, health anxiety patients who have had the virus deal with a whole different kind of worry. “Sometimes, I do get stricken with anxiety when I think about it. I got ill with a virus that scientists are still studying,” Amya told us.
“And people are having weird things happening to them after being infected. I can’t help but think I will be next. I try to think positive though. I’m planning to become a teacher in the future so, I think it will be cool when we get through the pandemic of 2020, I can tell them about how I experienced it myself,” she added.
Anxiety servers and support groups for health anxiety can be very useful for some people, especially during the pandemic and government’s orders to stay at home and reduce human contact. Amya has found her support system in the Beat Health Anxiety group.
“The people in the server know how exhausting and upsetting it is to think you have a new disease every day. I do try to talk to people about my health anxiety but they don’t understand. They tell me it’s nothing. It’s hard to believe when your mind makes up symptoms out of nowhere,” she said.
Rose, Pierre-Alexandre and Amya are just three examples of people who live with health anxiety and struggle in these uncertain times. Health anxiety might become more significant in the future. Living through a pandemic will certainly leave the world population scared.
Anxieties and worries about future pandemics will without doubt become a reality for more people, which makes awareness for what people with health anxiety go through even more important.
For those who struggle silently through this pandemic, Amya has some positive words: “I know how hard this pandemic is, especially with health anxiety. I promise you there’s a lot of people who never experienced an anxiety disorder in their lives and they’re now worrying as much as us. I’ve seen it. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Write it down. Call a friend and try to start a conversation. Don’t let health anxiety make your life miserable.”
For more resources and support for Anxiety Disorder, please:
Visit the NHS mental health self-help service
Call 116 123 to talk to Samaritans
Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the SHOUT crisis text support service, or text “YM” if you’re under 19
If you’re under 19, contact 0800 1111 to talk to Childline
If you need advice from health anxiety patients, visit r/HealthAnxiety on Reddit
If you would like to receive an invitation for the Beat Health Anxiety Discord server, please contact @The JeEvil#1627 on Discord
* Names have been changed at the interviewee’s request
Featured picture by Sharon Sinclair via Flickr Creative Commons
Edited by: Ashkenaz and Natalia Zmarzlik.