De­spite be­ing a fit and well twenty-some­thing, Jen­nifer Savin found her­self in the grips of health-fo­cused anx­i­ety. She ex­plains how ob­sess­ing over her phys­i­cal well­be­ing took its toll on her men­tal health

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - THE CASE STUDY Jen­nifer Savin, 26, a jour­nal­ist from Lon­don

Liv­ing with health anx­i­ety, ev­ery pang feels like a death knell

As I pointed to the shad­owy patch on the chest X-ray, the doc­tor gave a kind laugh. It was my fifth stint in A&E in as many weeks; this time, I was con­vinced I was hav­ing a heart at­tack. ‘But what’s that thing on my lungs? A tu­mour? Is it lung can­cer? That’s what my grandma died of…’ I stut­tered. ‘It’s your heart,’ he replied, be­fore pre­scrib­ing in­di­ges­tion tablets and wish­ing me a good week­end. The fix­a­tion on my health be­gan after a house party three years ago. At some point in the night, I slipped on the stairs and fell, knock­ing my head on each step on the way down. What I thought was a po­tent hang­over the next day turned out to be con­cus­sion. A chirpy doc­tor at the walk-in cen­tre as­sured me I’d be fine with rest, but, back home, I went on Google, and the fear that my run-of-the-mill con­cus­sion was ac­tu­ally a bleed on the brain took hold. In the weeks that fol­lowed, I vis­ited A&E mul­ti­ple times to try to get a CT scan, only to be turned away with var­i­ous di­ag­noses, from whiplash to a pulled mus­cle. The nig­gling anx­i­ety in­creased ten­fold when, a few weeks later, I heard a for­mer col­league had died sud­denly from an ag­gres­sive can­cer, after ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ‘a pain in her side’, ac­cord­ing to the Face­book sta­tus. She was just 22. For the first time, I re­alised that young, seem­ingly healthy peo­ple like me could die at any time – and I felt vul­ner­a­ble. As my fear of a bleed ramped up, so did the ac­com­pa­ny­ing headaches – along with a rac­ing heart, stom­ach aches and tin­gling limbs – and my self-di­ag­noses jumped from mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease to can­cer to di­a­betes. The notepad I car­ried in my bag to jot down ideas for ar­ti­cles for my job as a jour­nal­ist was soon filled with di­a­grams of my body in­stead, with cir­cles around the ar­eas where I felt pain. At work, I’d sit at my desk in a daze, googling ev­ery stir­ring in my body, while won­der­ing if the in­tern to my left had no­ticed that my screen was per­ma­nently lit with the blue NHS ban­ner. I’d pho­to­graph my moles each night be­fore bed, then again in the morn­ing to check they hadn’t changed in the night. At my worst, I re­treated to my par­ents’ house for four days, re­fus­ing food and metic­u­lously tak­ing the cock­tail of med­i­ca­tion I’d ac­cu­mu­lated. Look­ing back, I ques­tion why none of the many, many doc­tors I vis­ited over those four months re­alised my true ail­ment was men­tal, not phys­i­cal; nor ex­plained that my symp­toms could be psy­cho­so­matic, brought on by high lev­els of stress. I was given blood tests and pre­scribed cures for acid re­flux; I took mi­graine tablets, co-co­damol, and amitripty­line to help me sleep. But no one picked up on my decade-long his­tory of anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion. Last April, after I ex­tended my over­draft and paid £550 for pri­vate scans, a friend qui­etly sug­gested that per­haps I ought to ask my GP for a men­tal health as­sess­ment. When the scan re­sults came back nor­mal, the over­whelm­ing re­lief qui­etened my mind, and I took her ad­vice. A few weeks later, I was di­ag­nosed with se­vere health anx­i­ety and rec­om­mended a course of CBT. Ther­apy armed me with tools to dis­tract my­self when­ever the panic set in. One tac­tic I use is to name five things I can see, four I can touch, three I can hear, two I can smell and one I can taste. It dis­tracts me for long enough to stop my mind from spi­ralling. Then I can re­mind my­self that, sta­tis­ti­cally, I’m prob­a­bly fine. If ever I’m not, my body will let me know. Reg­u­lar ex­er­cise, a bet­ter diet and ditch­ing cig­a­rettes have all helped, too. When my health anx­i­ety was at its peak, I was so hy­per-aware of ev­ery­thing go­ing on in my body that I could hear the blood swirling in my ears and feel the beat of my own pulse. Iron­i­cally, the real cause of my headaches, stom­ach trou­bles and shak­ing hands was the stress of wor­ry­ing that they were some­thing more sin­is­ter. The ex­pe­ri­ence of feel­ing like I was dy­ing has in­ad­ver­tently given me a new per­spec­tive on life, too. I feel so lucky to be here, and healthy.

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