My terror of living with health anxiety

Health anxiety is a lesser spoken about condition that can have a severe impact on someone’s life. The anxiety that you’re going to get unwell or that you are unwell can cause daily life to consist of panic and fear. We spoke to Lillian about her experience with health anxiety and how she reached out for support.


When I first experienced health anxiety I didn’t actually realise that it was a mental health problem I was experiencing. Although diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder a few years prior, realising I was experiencing health anxiety didn’t come immediately. It was after a series of trips to my doctor that they mentioned it’s perhaps anxiety that’s the issue and not the numerous physical ailments I was worrying about.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I started to worry about my health. I think it was around the time that a close family member sadly passed away very unexpectedly, after seemingly being healthy. Looking back, I think it subconsciously put me on ‘hyper alert’ of all things health related – as a reaction from experiencing the sudden loss and feeling so hopeless and confused.

"I became convinced that any abnormal health symptom I experienced was related to a specific type of illness, and it would completely encapsulate my whole life."

– Lillian

My anxiety began consuming me – every minute of every day. Any available time I had would be focused on ‘finding answers’ for my symptoms, be it standing outside the office at work, on the phone to doctors or specialists, or not doing anything I enjoyed or spending time with any loved ones. My mind was purely on a complete mission to receive every test and reassurance possible from professionals, to confirm I didn’t have a specific illness. I’ve now learnt that for some people, health anxiety causes them to do the opposite, to retreat away from health professionals or from seeking reassurance as they are too terrified of the answers or a diagnosis. For me, I would be on the phone to my doctor most days when I was at my worst. I would be so certain in the moment, that once I received the ‘green light’ from a medical professional, I’d be fine and stop worrying.

The problem with health anxiety though, is that you never do relax or feel okay. Despite numerous tests or reassurances from professionals, you will still worry, and there’s nothing anyone can do. I might go through a period of being okay, perhaps once all tests for one illness become back clear. But then a few weeks later, a new physical symptom would appear and I would be straight back needing reassurance for this new concern. It was a never-ending cycle of worries about different illnesses for about a year before I realised I needed help. There’s no other way to describe living in this state of believing you’re gravely unwell, other than it being like living in sheer fear and terror 24/7.

"You feel sick to your stomach as you feel so fearful for the future and tearful constantly as you sincerely believe you’ve not got long to live."

– Lillian

When things were at their worst, I really believed there was no point in making future plans for myself, as I didn’t think I’d be around for much longer.

One of the hardest things I found about experiencing health anxiety is the guilt that comes with it. You constantly feel guilty for worrying about your health when presently, you’re healthy, and you’re aware there are many people out there who aren’t healthy and are very unwell, yet here you are worrying. It can be a difficult head space to be in, you want to reach out for reassurance from other people and to tell people how you’re feeling but you fear being told you’re being selfish for ‘wasting time’ worrying when you’re perfectly okay and there are others out there who are not. When my GP referred me to talking therapy, I was worried about reaching out to them in case they thought I was being selfish by spending so much time worrying about myself. However, when I did reach out for support, I immediately felt it was the right thing to do as it helped me unravel my feelings and I realised that actually I wasn’t being selfish. My anxiety and feelings were just as valid as anyone else’s anxieties and I wasn’t choosing to live this way, in this state of fear.

"Talking therapy helped me to realise I wasn't selfish for worrying about my health. It didn't make me a bad person for having these thoughts whilst other people were genuinely unwell."

– Lillian

Through talking therapy, I managed to get to the potential root causes of why my anxiety surrounding health and death might be the way it is. For anyone else experiencing health anxiety I would recommend talking therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy for this reason. There might not always be an obvious reason, and there doesn’t have to be a ‘reason’ to experience health anxiety. But therapy can help you to think about life events, past traumas, worries or concerns you have in life about health or death that might be triggering your anxiety. Once you’ve found root causes you can then work on reframing negative thoughts or work on recovering from trauma, which can help ease the anxiety symptoms. I also found exercise extremely helpful, as the stronger and fitter my body became the more physically and mentally healthy I felt. It also reminded me that to a certain extent, we can support our bodies in being healthy by living a healthy lifestyle. Of course this isn’t always the case, and the fact healthy people can still become unwell was something I worked on in therapy, tackling how this relates to being in or out of control, and finding peace with this idea.

I’m now in a much better place thanks to therapy. I rarely have intrusive anxious thoughts about my health or being unwell. If they do occur, I now feel more equipped to deal with them thanks to therapy which supported me to find acceptance with the concept of death and being unwell. I realised a lot of my anxiety was related to being in control, and being fully in control of our health sadly isn’t something we can be. But what we can do, is keep our minds and body healthy, and simply live with a bid to laugh, seek enjoyment and have fun. I don’t panic now when I think about the possibility I might one day become unwell. A few years ago, I would never have thought it would be possible to feel that calm or rational about that thought!

The main thing I would like to tell anyone who has experienced health anxiety, is that you’re not alone. It really can be an extremely isolating experience as very few people fully grasp just how terrifying it feels to experience it and just how much it can destroy your life; coupled with the worry of being judged as selfish when you do reach out. There is support out there and there are people who understand.

My experience actually took place pre-pandemic. But I read that health anxiety has sharply risen post the Covid-19 pandemic, due to the trauma many of us experienced and how health consumed our lives during that period. If you’re experiencing health anxiety, things can get better for you, I am testament to that.

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