Health anxiety: often overlooked, not to be underestimated

We all have little niggles about our general health and wellbeing – whether it’s not feeling quite as fit as we once were or the bloody Daily Mail claiming the latest food item/hobby/thing we love most will give us cancer.

And I defy you to find anyone who hasn’t indulged in a bit of self-diagnoses via Dr. Google – only to be told they’re definitely going to die.

But there’s a difference between things we all do and a health niggle escalating into something that starts to negatively affects your daily life.

The symptom or sensation itself may not even cause the most distress. It’s the worry.

As someone with a more ‘generalised’ form of anxiety, I tend to not find myself too tied up in specifics.  So imagine my horror when one small concern became overblown and I entered full-on hypochondriac mode. And, like all manifestations of anxiety, it’s no barrel of laughs.

Ignorance is bliss

I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve had youth on my side, but my health is one of the few things I’ve not been too concerned about. If anything, I’ve always found it quite easy to just brush these mild worries under the carpet.

“It’s probably nothing.”

“It’s no big deal.”

“I’m sure it’ll get better.”

^ All things I’ve said about health niggles. I didn’t even register with a doctor for the entire duration of university, so confident was I in my health.

Until I wasn’t.

It wasn’t until I had a funny sensation in my teeth that I realised I hadn’t been to the dentist in about five years – and the last time I did, I was pretty sure I was meant to see a hygienist.

Some new personality quirks

Pretty much overnight, I became absolutely obsessed with my teeth. They felt loose and the whole sensation freaked me the fuck out and led to a range of weird behaviours like…

  • incessantly touching my teeth to check if they moved
  • running my tongue around them all the time
  • regular trips to the bathroom to check in the mirror if they looked like they were wobbling
  • actively avoiding anything sugary
  • responding to ‘How are you?’ with ‘I’m really worried about my teeth’
  • asking other people how their teeth feel (I’m not kidding)
  • focusing a weird amount on how healthy other people’s gums looked compared to mine
  • regularly Googling gum disease, periodontitis and other nightmare-inducing things
  • spending a small fortune on expensive mouthwashes
  • working out if I could afford dentures if necessary (I really wish I was joking)

So as you can see, it was bad. I was absolutely convinced they were falling out and feared them all falling out.

So after weeks of worrying, I finally made an appointment and braced myself (no pun intended) for the worst.

The moment of t(r)ooth (sorry)

Dentists don’t usually phase me at all. Some pretty unpleasant machinery noise, some even worse tingling, the worst mouthwash (what’s with that?)… but it’s usually over in a flash and worth it.

This time, however, I was absolutely cacking myself as I prepared to be told my mouth was decaying. I sat in the clinical waiting area re-doing my maths on the whole dentures front.

“Victoria Richards?”

Oh mother of heck. Here we go.

Fortunately for me, half an hour or so later I was thanking the Enamel Gods and promising to never miss an appointment again.  After a scale, polish and x-ray just to confirm, I was told that my teeth were absolutely not falling out – they just needed a little TLC (if my brain was working this would be a great opportunity for a joke about scrubs).

But I wish I could say that was the end of it. My teeth felt super sensitive from the deep clean and I continued to worry.

Getting back to normal

See, the thing with hypochondria is that you’ve built all this worry up – and even when a professional tells you it’s all good, the worry doesn’t go away.

Weeks later, my teeth still felt really weird. My appointment had seemed really short. Maybe I didn’t stress enough to the dentist how concerned I was? Maybe they didn’t do all the checks? Maybe my teeth had actually weakened even more.

It took four appointments in the space of a year (including a hygienist visit just for good measure) to convince me that my teeth were genuinely fine. That’s a long time to spend worrying.

I think it probably stems from having braces for five years (yeah, really) and not wanting to mess ‘em up after all that teenage trauma. Or constantly gritting my teeth thanks to being generally anxious a lot of the time (yay). Who knows.

I should say that I realise this experience is possibly quite laughable to those who deal with health anxiety on a daily basis. I’m lucky that my worries tend to only pop up very infrequently and can generally be alleviated with a regular check-up. Even so, I have huge empathy for those with ongoing health anxiety. Hypochondria in particular doesn’t get the most sympathetic portrayal, but it is really quite distressing – and, like all mental health conditions and anxieties, deserves to be treated respectfully.

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