For people who have health anxiety, a global pandemic is a minefield

‘The slightest ache or cough I think I have the virus’

The coronavirus has altered each and every one of our lives unequivocally. We’ve had to change the very nature of our existence, from the way we shop to the way we socialise. We haven’t seen our loved ones for months, and every day it’s a little tougher to find the motivation to be productive. For some of us, however, this new world we live in is made even scarier through health anxiety.

Health anxiety can effect anyone, regardless of how healthy they are, but often its roots stem from long term or severe illnesses faced by the sufferer or someone close to them. Those affected have an obsessional preoccupation with the idea that they are currently, or will in the future suffer from a physical illness.

At 18 I was diagnosed with a severe leaking heart valve, meaning some of the valves in my heart were essentially stunted and not enough blood was being pumped from the heart. I had initially gone to the doctor about a cough, and had no other symptoms which suggested I may have something wrong. Just three months later I underwent very invasive surgery to repair the valves, and fortunately the operation was a success.

While the operation was successful, it marked the beginning of a long struggle with health anxiety. No matter how much reassurance I have from doctors, there is always that voice in the back of my head reminding me that something might be wrong. I question every little ache, pain, noise or funny feeling. I’m constantly asking myself: ‘What if I’m sick again?’

That was three and a half years ago now, and I’ve had numerous scans and tests since then, all of which show I’m okay. Regardless, the anxiety doesn’t disappear. I’ve learnt to live with it, push it to the back of my mind, but I can’t imagine it ever disappearing, and given the current global situation, things seem all that more stressful.

So many people have found themselves reluctant to leave the house, even with the easing of lockdown measures, out of fear of contracting the virus. The Tab have spoken to students about their experiences of health anxiety, and how they’ve dealt with it during a global health pandemic.

Katie, a final year student at Cardiff, has said that she finds the pandemic “super hard to deal with.”

“The slightest ache or cough I think I have the virus. Especially being asthmatic I struggle too to be rational and continue as normal as I can.”

“Even meeting with a friend socially distant makes me over think to the max.”

Fear of the unknown

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been thrown about so much the last few months, and using it to justify every bump in the road during this pandemic often sounds rather cliché. For those suffering from health anxiety, however, these times truly are unprecedented.

Covid-19 has opened the door to a whole host of new anxieties previously untapped by people who fear for their health. Before,  people feared for the illnesses their own bodies could inflict on them, while now there’s the added worry of contracting a potentially fatal virus from menial tasks such as doing your weekly shop, or even collecting packages from your front door.

What adds to this fear is the unknown. Stories circulate of healthy, young people with no underlying health conditions being taken ill and tragically passing because of the virus. This bears the question: If it can happen to a seemingly healthy person, then could it not just as easily happen to me? No one is exempt from this, and that makes it all the more terrifying.

For me, the fear lies in two places. Firstly, if the problem with my heart resurfaced without me knowing, just like the first time, and I were to contract coronavirus, what would happen to me? Coronavirus has a seemingly endless list of symptoms, and clarity  on how it may effect individual parts of the body is severely lacking.

Secondly, if I were to fall ill again and require surgery, what would happen? Would I be a priority? And what’s to stop me contracting the virus in hospital when I’d be in less of a condition to fight it off?

This worry is shared by millions of people across the world and, while it may feel relentless, the best thing you can do is voice your anxieties to those who will listen.

One student told The Tab that they “haven’t actually had many coronavirus anxieties, it’s more that I’m worried about coronavirus in general rather than how it could impact me.” They add that “the biggest impact on my health anxiety would be the underlying stress and worries, as even though I don’t feel stressed or worried all the time, those feelings are always in the background because of the virus and so my body is hyperaware of feelings/pains that I otherwise wouldn’t notice.”

As a result of the anxiety, the student has seen “a big backward step in my development.”

“I’m back taking 2 hours to eat a meal, and every little random pain stays in my head for hours. My chest pain is back regularly, I’m taking paracetamol 4 times a day for that because otherwise I manage to convince myself it’s a heart attack, when in reality it’s probably just underlying health anxiety.”

Second hand health anxiety

Many of us won’t be experiencing anxiety surrounding our own health at this time, but rather second hand health anxiety for a a friend or family member. Living in a household with someone deemed high risk has proved trying for many people, and, even as lockdown restrictions are lifted, some have found themselves struggling with the idea of leaving their house out of fear of bringing the virus back home.

The Tab has spoken to some students isolating at home with an at risk parent to see how they’ve found the experience.

Lucy, a postgrad student at St. Andrews, spoke of the anxiety she felt having one parent deemed as high risk, and another falling ill in the height of the outbreak: “A few years ago my mum had a serious case of pneumonia which resulted in one of her lungs collapsing and the other working at only thirty per cent. Naturally this pandemic has made the whole family really anxious about making sure she stays safe.

“To add to this, about six weeks ago my dad had a serious stroke in the middle of the night, which of course is always going to be terrifying to witness a loved one go through, but I think significantly more during a pandemic.”

“The ambulance arrived quickly… none of us were allowed to go with him which of course was so difficult and we were all terrified.”

Lucy said that the whole family were “very reluctant to leave the house for any reason” at the start, adding “something as basic as her [Mum] going grocery shopping made me quite anxious.”

She said the experience “has made us all be really vigilant with obeying social distancing.” With her sister and her fiancé isolating in London, Lucy said it was tough because “we couldn’t be together as a family when we needed it the most, none of us could see our friends and I couldn’t hug my boyfriend.”

A Cardiff University third year, whose dad is deemed high risk, told The Tab that her family had to “get used to being extra careful.”

“I did have some problems coming home from uni as my flat mates were still going to the gym and visiting friends while I was trying to isolate to get home and try not to bring any Corona home to dad.”

“Once home, lockdown was very extreme and none of us left the house. I wasn’t nervous to get CoVid myself, I was just nervous to go out and bring it home.”

She wrote that the most stressful part was not being able to “control how careful those around me were being who could pass it on.”

Offering Support

Living with health anxiety is terrible at the best of times. You can feel lonely, trapped, and as if no one understands you. Sometimes you want to bash your head against a wall, because no matter how irrational you know you’re being, those thoughts don’t go away.

For many suffering from health anxiety, the pandemic has heightened these feelings to seemingly insurmountable levels. Offering support to those who are dealing with these anxieties can do the world of good.

Katie said that “Calming people down with positive facts or affirmations goes such a long way. Not focusing on negative statistics.”

“Also supporting your friends by respecting they may not want to meet yet and try and keep in touch via video call etc.”

“Just check in as much as you can, positive information and reassurance!”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

• ‘It’s like an invisible war’: Black students on life at a majority-white uni

• This is what it’s like to be a young person who’s shielding right now

• How the coronavirus crisis could keep working class kids locked out of top unis

Featured image: Samuel Scrimshaw/Unsplash