How to tell if you're really sick or just a hypochondriac

About 15 years ago when I was living in the UK, they introduced NHS hotline: it was a phone line you could call to discuss medical symptoms with a nurse, to stop anxious malingerers like me clogging up doctor's surgeries. I was having a bottle of red in front of the TV, and couldn't ignore the pain in my left arm. I'd tidied the garage earlier in the day and I'd clearly pulled a muscle in the six hours of moving heavy objects. 

But everyone knows that pain in the left arm equals heart attack, right?

So I poured myself another glass of wine - like you would if you thought you were going into cardiac arrest - and phoned the hotline. I got the reassurance I needed and moved on.

Going clear

And here's how my mind sometimes works around my personal health: the rational me laughs at this and can see it's nothing; the fearful me can't let it go until I have the all clear  from a medical professional.

Luckily this wasn't a regular occurrence for me. I'm an anxious person with a few minor mental health issues, but worrying about my health was something that happened rarely. When it gripped, I liked to get things checked out though; and occasionally I would save up a whole basket of ailments and unload them in an avalanche on an unsuspecting doctor.

About five years before the hotline incident I'd been in bed with my new girlfriend - later who became my wife - sharing a few worries I had about my health. 

"Go and see your doctor," she said in a simple and direct way. 

I explained I didn't have a doctor in Bath, as I'd only been living there six years… which gives an indication of the true state of my health.

Very reassuring

So I found a doctor and unloaded a few of my worries on him: A hernia (turned out it was muscle - bonus!); premature deafness (a blocked ear), stomach cancer ("change your diet")… 

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 As I was leaving I asked him if he thought I was a hypochondriac. 

He said, along with the six or seven other things I was clear of, that I didn't have that either. That it was massively common for men to save up their health anxieties and dump them all in one visit to a GP.

I left reassured.

Worrying yourself sick

And that's probably why I'm not a hypochondriac. Because a true hypochondriac would have sort a second and third opinion, and still not have been satisfied. 

I just need a bit of positive validation after a short period of worry; for a hypochondriac it is usually over six months of debilitating stress over symptoms; to a point that it stops them leading a normal life.

Hypochondriacs have a hyper vigilance that requires ongoing and constant reassurance. Known as 'Health Anxiety' these days rather than hypochondria, sufferers worry themselves sick about being sick. 

My form of health worry, is rather like 'feeling a bit down' when compared to someone with extreme depression.

The inner workings

Like many other mental illnesses, there can be overlap with OCD, general anxiety and depression - all of which I've suffered from to some degree. The treatment for health anxiety is generally CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), in an attempt to rid someone of the idea that worrying somehow protects them.

And whereas some one-to-three per cent of the population are seen as hypochondriacs, up to 25 per cent of the population can have the slightly excessive worry about their health that is easily relieved by a visit to the medical centre.

The bottom line is that worrying about your health is not uncommon. Just see an actual doctor, rather than trying to become one yourself via Google…

The most common Dr Google searches

Worried about minor ailments? Why go to a health professional when you can work yourself into a state of panic with two hours obsessively searching Google. They call it Cyberchondria…

Recurring headaches

It must be: Brain tumour

What it probably is: Recurring headaches - possibly stress, dehydration

Likely treatment: Drink more water, take some Panadol, deal with the stress

Symptom: Bloated stomach ache

It must be: Stomach cancer

What it probably is: Stomach ache

Likely treatment: Drink more water, eat more veg and fibre, stay off take away and red wine for a couple of nights

Shortness of breath

It must be: Heart attack

What it probably is: You're unfit!

Likely treatment: Lose some weight, get some exercise, otherwise it will be a heart attack warning sign.

Tenderness in testicles

It must be: Testicular cancer

What it probably is: Tenderness in testicles

Likely treatment: Stop fiddling with your testicles