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
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.