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What it's like to deal with 'relentless' health anxiety: 'I think I'm going to die'

   February 25, 2021 5:23 AM
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by Sara M Moniuszko USA TODAY

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HEALTH Health anxiety
Alanah Sarginson says it started off as a slight ache in her arm, which caused her to panic. Then, she felt a pain in her chest that made her think she was struggling to breathe. Within five minutes, Sarginson texted her friends.

Her worries had taken over. "I'm in 'I might die tomorrow' mode," she recalled.

The 20-year-old full-time student and part-time illustrator struggles with health anxiety. And though sometimes she comes to the realization that "this is probably mostly in my head," it doesn't matter.

"If I think I'm going to die, I don't really care how embarrassing I am because obviously it's like the most ultimate threat," she explained. "So I'm going to take it seriously even if it's just my mind playing tricks on me."

Though Sarginson has dealt with health anxiety in the past, she says the coronavirus pandemic made it worse.

"It's made me a lot more scared. It's taken it up a notch," she said. "Everyone's going about their lives and I'm in my room Googling symptoms, panicking, checking my temperature."

This hyper-focus on health concerns is something that people with health anxiety can struggle with daily, said Melissa Dowd, a therapist at PlushCare, a virtual mental health and primary care company. Many may be more familiar with the former term hypochondria (or more technically hypochondriasis), which was replaced in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013 by two updated concepts: somatic symptom disorder and illness anxiety disorder.

Dowd defined health anxiety as "worries and obsessions related to a perceived threat to one's health."

"Often someone who is suffering from health anxiety, they'll be hypersensitive to any changes or sensations that they experience in their body and then when they have those changes and sensations, they'll misinterpret them as dangerous."

Ken Goodman, LCSW, board member for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and creator of "The Anxiety Solution Series" audio program, explained that health anxiety can also be an extreme reaction to external triggers, such as news reports or social media posts about illnesses like cancer.

The person who has health anxiety would then take.... that social media post, and exaggerate it to the worst possible scenario, and believe that this might be happening to them," Goodman explained.

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Sarginson, who lives in London, has noticed a correlation between how much COVID-focused news she's been consuming and "how much I'm freaking out and thinking I'm going to die."

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