COVID-19 triggered an intense form of anxiety in me that revolves around the fear of getting sick
I vividly remember the day when it first happened. I had gone for a long walk by myself earlier in the morning, while my partner was at work. I had just lost my job and was stuck at home by myself because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Despite the pandemic and being in-between jobs, everything was fine. Nothing was out of the ordinary until I looked down at my hands and saw that my fingernails were turning purple.
At that moment, I knew what it felt like when people say their heart dropped to their stomach.
I thought I was dying.
My heart pounded faster and faster. I started pacing around the apartment, as my brain started to get foggy. Any sense of logic I had was disappearing. My breathing was getting heavier by the second, triggering hyperventilation. The only thought clouding my head was, “I don’t want to die alone.”
In reality, I was fine; but something in me snapped when I saw the purple creeping up my fingers with no explanation. I couldn’t help but think the absolute worst as I started to shake.
I put two fingers from my left hand on the radial artery on my right wrist. I had to check my pulse, which was something I did often to soothe my anxiety.
Although I’m familiar with anxiety attacks, this was different. It was the first of a series of unbearable, clouded and extreme panic attacks that I started to get ever since the pandemic started.
From then on, my anxiety changed. Without any symptoms at all I would experience anxiety, and when that panic kicks in, nothing else beside going to the hospital fills my brain. Once the panic subsides, I know I’m fine. Though I haven’t had a full blown panic attack recently, I know it could come any second.
This type of health anxiety is also known as hypochondriasis, which is when someone thinks something is wrong with them without even experiencing any symptoms, according to The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders.
This type of anxiety runs in my family. My mom, who has been a hypochondriac for many years, found out through her condition that she has breast cancer. Her innate fear that something was wrong turned out to be right. Though the news of her breast cancer came recently, until she got genetic testing, I was concerned that this could be hereditary. It was a fear that I couldn’t stop thinking about.
Health anxiety is often correlated with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to research and mental health-related publication, Inspire Magazine. It includes fear of dying, suffering from an illness, or even fear of permanent suffering, fear of never getting an accurate diagnosis and never finding treatment for your symptoms (real or imagined).
“Usually there is some sort of evidence that has proven it right (a person’s specific fear) in the past, whether it’s about a lesser illness or someone else who has gotten sick by something and having a connection to it,” said Norman Dæmon, a Toronto based registered social worker and psychotherapist.
Dæmon said hypochondriasis is similar to other anxiety disorders, but those who have it struggle significantly more with the fear of the unknown.
“Specifically with hypochondriasis it has to do with getting sick or contracting an illness.That could be anything from constantly checking their body for things like melanoma, to having stomach pain and thinking that it is cancer or worrying about contracting rare illnesses,” said Dæmon. “Having those things in their minds make sense because they are following certain extremes and catastrophic thinking.”
For me, this form of anxiety was utterly terrifying. This uncontrollable feeling comes over you and forces you to research what is wrong with you, even though no matter what you find, you always think the worst until you calm down enough to chase it away.
Hypochondriasis can come with a variety of symptoms, such as shaking, difficulty breathing, or sweating. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen an influx of misinformation and confusion, many people have been paralyzed with fear about what to do upon getting sick. With the constant bombardment of information, some of which is hard to discern between truth or fiction, it can become challenging to those who suffer from hypochondriasis.
“It is terrifying for those living with this type of illness because they are not getting a break from all of this information. There is never a time when they are not hearing about this virus,” said Dæmon.
According to a study done by the Canadian Psychology Association, around three to five per cent of the Canadian population suffer from intense illness concern, while 20 per cent suffer from a milder fear about illness.
Jennifer Febel, a motivational speaker, author and life coach who specializes in mental health, said that hypochondriasis is the false belief that we are broken, which leads to the obsession of trying to “fix” our broken parts. Febel suggests that people experience this type of anxiety to have a sense of power and control over our lives in a world that can sometimes make people feel powerless.
“Our health is in our control and it’s something we can focus on, that we can make changes to,” said Febel. “It’s easy to get caught in the trap of, ‘if my life isn’t working, what in me needs to be fixed?’”
Due to the rise of COVID-19, it is very common for people to experience a form of hypochondriasis, because contracting COVID-19 is the confirmation of people’s fears, said Febel.
“That fear is being reflected back to us in society in a very profound way,” said Febel. “Having a constant message of fear – and now with COVID-19 – not only is there actually a threat out there, but we are now being told to hide in our homes.”
According to Medical News Today, it is normal for people to obsess over COVID-19 and fearing that they may contract the virus.
Many people who experience hypochondriasis, including myself, can also have separation anxiety. Though separation anxiety is often experienced in children, according to Anxiety Canada adults can also experience it. I had the fear that something bad would happen to me while I was alone. Now during COVID-19 separation anxiety is more prominent in any age demographics, according to Providence health clinic.
Dæmon says that one of the most common therapeutic methods to combat hypochondriasis is cognitive behavioural therapy. This type of method is based on understanding their mindsets, reviewing their patterns of unhelpful behaviour and relieving their symptoms, according to the American Psychological Association. Though it is common for people battling hypochondriasis to resist seeking treatment, according to CBT Associates, there are methods to manage it at home. The Center for Anxiety Disorders suggests that those seeking at home self-help for their hypochondriasis should learn stress management and relaxation techniques, avoid online searching for their symptoms, focus on outdoor activities, avoid alcohol and recreational drugs and recognize that the physical signs you’re experiencing are normal body sensations.
A few months after developing hypochondriasis, I woke up with a sore throat, which is someone’s worst nightmare during a global pandemic. I convinced myself that I had contracted the virus. I was so emotional that I stayed up until six in the morning because I couldn’t sleep until I went to the doctor.
Lucky enough, it was just tonsillitis.
Though my mom’s hypochondriasis resulted in her finding out she had breast cancer, I know my story is different. I have stopped researching symptoms, I tell myself out loud when I feel the panic coming on that I am OK and I rely on my support system to keep me grounded.
Even though I don’t want to feel this way, I can’t help but think the worst. No matter how exhausting and difficult it is to calm down and remind myself I’m all right, I do it. I think of my mom, think of her strength, and remember to look beyond the fear that follows me every day.